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Playing Ball on a Field Without Boundaries
by James R. Edwards
Perhaps the most fundamental issue before American Christianity—both liberal and conservative—is what it means to be a confessional church in a pluralistic world. Christianity is by nature confessional. American democracy is by necessity pluralistic. The Church—at least, the Church militant—never exists apart from a cultural context. The longstanding alliance between Protestantism and American democracy makes the Church particularly vulnerable to a confusion of creed and context, of confessional status and pluralistic environment. Our quandary over the confession by which we live and the pluralistic culture in which we live is sometimes like trying to play football on a field without sidelines and end zones.
Pluralism: From a Political Means to an Ideological End
Pluralism, as I use it here, might be defined as a commitment to diversity that serves the political goal of inclusiveness and human rights, as well as the technological goal of specialization, with an attendant increase in individualization and privatization. Its purpose is expressed in a motto of much currency in America, E Pluribus Unum, unity from diversity. That may not be the way pluralism always works, but that seems to be the way it is supposed to work. Pluralism of the above stripe has also been adopted by mainline denominations as a way of maintaining unity within increasingly divergent memberships.
The postwar years have witnessed an unprecedented expansion of pluralism in American society. Pluralism has come of age, graduating from its subservience to the goals of human rights and technological specialization to an end in itself. This change has not left the Church unaffected. The apotheosis of subservient pluralism to total pluralism has resulted in a collage of quasi-values promoted by assertion and unchallenged by reason or faith. If total relativism asserts that nothing is true, total pluralism asserts that all things are equally true. To say that all things are true is, of course, to say that nothing is true, and even reasonable efforts to critique or discriminate between competing claims are labeled as elitist, patriarchal, or oppressive. If total relativism leads to radical skepticism, total pluralism leads to anomie, a state of disorientation or confusion in which normative standards and ultimate truths either become forbidden or meaningless.
The state of disorientation or confusion, of course, tends to be an impermanent state. Churches, like political entities and social organizations, are no more tolerant of anomie than is nature of a vacuum. Factionalism results, and since there can be no truth by which to judge one faction better than another, the rule of the smoking gun takes over: control falls to the groups that know how to amass and control the means of power.
Pluralism as a Historical Challenge to the Church
How accurately the foregoing describes the current state of affairs each reader must judge, but from a historical perspective it cannot be questioned that the current interface with pluralism is nothing new. In one form or another, for better or worse, pluralism has influenced the Church throughout its history. We may be experiencing it in fuller force today, but the Church has never existed (nor will it ever exist) apart from a social, political, and ideological context that in varying degrees poses a challenge to its existence and proclamation. I mention but three examples.
The Early Church: A Clarion Gospel in a Disintegrating World
The world into which Christianity was born was in many respects a world akin to ours. In classical Greek the word cosmos meant “order” or “discipline” or “decorum”—in all things from households to the universe. Human life was intended as “a cosmos in miniature,” i.e., an ordered microcosm within an ordered macrocosm. Plato’s world was one in which eternal forms or ideals revealed the meaning of ultimate values, including justice, goodness, beauty, and truth. The epitome of the ordered universe was the polis, the city-state where life (for the upper class at least) attained its optimum expression.
The tasteful attire of the classical world was ragged by Jesus’ day, however. The once-bountiful cosmos was in a state of deterioration and crises, beclouded by arbitrary forces that were stronger than life and hostile to it. In philosophy, religion and literature, the Hellenistic world reflected a growing uncertainty about human prospects. The winds of resignation, pessimism, and above all, anxiety, descended with a howl on the chastened fold of the classical consensus, dispersing once stable and benevolent forces.
The proliferation of religious sects in first-century Hellenism is evidence of such anxiety and fragmentation. No one sect—whether Isis, Mithra, Eleusis, or Magna Mater—offered universal salvation to its devotees. Rather, each clutched a plank or piece of floating wreckage from the foundering ship of the classical world in hopes of providing a way of weathering the storm. It was in this disintegrating world that, as Arthur Darby Nock noted, the witness of Christians made legendary headway. In a fearful and capricious world, the gospel promised universal salvation in Jesus Christ; amidst cults of secrecy, the gospel was proclaimed openly in synagogues and market places; in a world searching for individual escape, the gospel took on the form of an organized church, a witnessing and sometimes suffering community of faith; and in an age when no way or truth was deemed compelling enough to demand the whole of human life, followers of Jesus Christ bore witness to their faith by the supreme sacrifice of martyrdom.
The Development of Tradition in the Trinitarian Controversies
A second and more familiar example of pluralism comes from the early Trinitarian debates. Roughly between A.D. 150 and 450 the Great Church, as it was known, became enmeshed in a life and death struggle over the nature of Jesus Christ, whom it proclaimed Lord. The controversies that ensued were cardinal and bitter. Although the Church was unable to pinpoint the exact nature of the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Father and Spirit, it did succeed in drawing a large circle, so to speak, outside of which it believed the truth could not be found. The orthodox consensus, as it came to be known, resulted in the formation of a determinative tradition that separated the apostolic faith as it was believed, confessed, and taught from the plethora of options which, however close, attractive, and even reasonable, ultimately failed the test of the Church’s understanding and experience of Christ.
Ins and Outs of the Creedal Tradition
In addition to the Church’s early missionary advances and the Trinitarian controversies, the long sweep of Christian doctrine is instructive for the question of pluralism. The history of theology is essentially a history of the transmission of countless creeds, confessions, and statements of belief from one generation to the next in an effort to wrest truth from error. The creeds, of course, are as irregular and uneven as the people and times that produced them. Nevertheless, two things can be said of them.
First, their very number testifies to the Church’s ongoing need to redefine itself as its historical context changed. Creeds are like compass readings that enable the church to stay on course. As long as the Church is underway in history a final creed can never be written, for if the Church is to make port it must readjust its sails as winds and conditions change. The Church should not be surprised by the present turbulence of pluralism, not even if it reaches gale force, as it threatens to. We may gain insight and courage form past voyages, but it is up to us to hold a steady rudder for the present course.
Second, thirty minutes with a book of confessions will reveal that most creeds are woven on the warp and woof of affirmation and negation, inclusion and exclusion, ins and outs. Like a city, a creed must offer both freedom and protection; or like a team, it must combine a good offense with a good defense. More often than not the church has learned that its faith is best expressed where the gospel is affirmed and its opposite denied. The truth must be defended against enemies, and the most dangerous enemy is the unidentified enemy. A contemporary British philosopher, Antony Flew, has recently developed a philosophical axiom of something that is evinced in the history of Christian creeds, namely, that any claim of truth must deny its opposite in order to be valid.
The Present Challenge of Pluralism
If pluralism is not a new challenge, what is the shape of its present challenge to the Church? I should for the moment like to limit myself to some of its theological consequences. In my reading of theological journals and literature I notice at least six threads that are woven into the fabric of contemporary theology.
1. A Shift in Emphasis from What the Text Says to What It Allows
I begin with the most famous hallmark of modern theology, the historical-critical method. However we finally judge its achievement, the intent of historical criticism was to determine what the text actually said, and what it meant to its first recipients, both of which were regarded as foundational for the task of interpreting Scripture in a modern context. It might be an overstatement to cry, “O how the mighty have fallen!”, but the historical-critical method is clearly limping on the field of battle.
Those who are skeptical of the historical-critical method may welcome this turn of events, but they will scarcely be comforted by the current shift from what the text says and means to what it allows. The historical-critical method respected the historical distance separating the modern interpreter from the ancient text and saw the degree of impartiality afforded by that distance as an aid to understanding the text. Today, however, there is an intolerance of historical distance. The ideal of impartiality is regarded in many hermeneutical circles as not only unattainable but also undesirable. The academic study of the Bible, it is asserted, needs to analyze and respond to the modern social setting, especially as it is determined by questions of a social and political nature. Thus, the notion of the original meaning of a text is increasingly regarded as irrelevant. The contemporary context of the interpreter—whether feminist, Marxist, liberationist, gay, ecological, structuralist, and so forth—is judged to give meaning to the text, rather than the historical context out of which the text originated. The result is a very modern but dubious conclusion: the Bible, like any other document, has no objective truth or meaning in itself, but only a subjective truth latent in the eyes and experiences of its interpreters. Thus, an exaggerated sense of contemporaneity threatens to erase historical objectivity and truth.
2. Loss of a Concept of Orthodoxy Due to an Over Reliance on Social Sciences
A second challenge to historical criticism has come from the social sciences, which are leaving a distinctive imprint on theology today, particularly on the study of Christian origins. A positive result of this has been a greater appreciation of the context out of which the ancient texts grew. But a negative result has been the virtual sidelining of the concept of orthodoxy. Until modern times orthodoxy has been regarded as a credo of faith, a positive and necessary article of Christianity that was defensible on the basis of Scripture, reason and ontology. The social sciences, however, have accentuated the pluriform nature of religious experience and shifted discourse away from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. As a result, Christian faith is seen as but one example among many of diverse, culturally conditioned responses to a single divine reality. The dogma of the Church, particularly the absolute historical claim that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity, is generally dismissed or even denied today in favor of alternative categories of religious traditions, heritages, and symbols.
3. The Pressure of Faith Consensus to Promote World Peace
A further example of theological pluralism derives from the shrinkage of the globe due to increased communications and travel. Not only are we more aware of other cultures and religions today, but threats to global stability from nuclear proliferation, ethnic unrest, and the myriad of perils to peace have placed in the minds of many a moral ultimatum at the doorstep of the Church. Other religions also are included in the ultimatum, of course, but because Christianity is often regarded as the religion of powerful and aggressor nations, it is being assessed a steeper apportionment for the promoting of peace and unity—and judged increasingly by its contribution to those ends.
Nowhere is this clearer than in inter-faith dialogues and study documents issuing from them. It is, to be sure, a welcome event whenever believers of different faiths talk to one another instead of torture one another. The past fifty years have produced many instances of this happy fact, even though scars of brutality still mar the face of religion. Nevertheless, modern theology and inter-faith dialogues tend to be less interested in exploring the uniqueness of Judaism or Christianity, for example, than in exploiting whatever elements each tradition offers for the promotion of a stable world order. Reading the latest inter-faith statement can be like reading oneself quoted in a newspaper: it is not always easy to recognize oneself—or one’s tradition. Religion, in other words, is treated only as a means to ulterior social and political ends, and thus is reduced by a selective agenda to the least that can be said of it. In the case of Christianity, it results in wine being changed to water.
4. Attacks on Transcendence and Sovereignty from Feminism
Fourth and briefly, at least one consequence of feminism is relevant to this discussion. Feminist interests continue to dominate the theological spectrum today, and they are known well enough, and so widely discussed, that little new can be offered here. With regard to theological pluralism, however, feminism has resulted in an emphasis on theologies of creation, immanence, and nature (as opposed to history), with the corollary that such theologies are conducive to ecological sensitivity and responsibility. These theologies are set against the foil of traditional theology, especially European and Western theology, which is frequently associated with or depicted as an instrument of male-domination, patriarchy, and exploitation. The common result of this is a shift away from categories of dogma, transcendence, sovereignty, and authority.
5. The Holy Spirit as a Mirror of Human Experience Rather than of Christ and Scripture
Fifth, theological pluralism tends to speak of the activity of the Holy Spirit above that of the other two Persons of the Trinity, especially the Second. For many, “the Spirit” appears to be a subjective metaphor for the preferences of the speaker, whether political, social, gender, sexual, or ecological. For a growing number of theologians the Spirit has become a free agent whose authority is appealed to on the basis of human experience alone, often separate from or in contrast to Scripture and Christology.
6. The Quest for a Non-Messianic Jesus
Finally, I think it fair to say that theology is again on a quest for the historical Jesus, but for a non-messianic Jesus who is not God’s Son. Academic theology is increasingly characterized by the modern West’s dismissal of the categories of God, Satan, and the supernatural as meaningful or even necessary explanations for the universe. In Christology this is augmented by various tribal allegiances in which Jesus becomes an archetype of any number of causes and ideologies. Sage, prophet, social reformer, or even revolutionary he may be, but he is not the once-for-all revelation of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Being a Confessional Church in a Pluralistic World
The foregoing may seem like an exercise in academic tail chasing, but ideas such as these are effectively filtered to the Church by both ecclesiastical and secular media. The question becomes, What does it mean to be the Church of Jesus Christ in a pluralistic world? Specifically, what does it mean to live by the gospel in the context of the cultural assumptions, both spoken and unspoken, which characterize society today?
“Jesus Is Lord”
As far as we know, the oldest confession of the Church is Kyrios Iesous, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). In two words early Christians confessed that Jesus is Lord not only of the church but also of the world; not only of the spiritual life but also of all life; not only of some peoples but also of all peoples. Kyrios Iesous was the truth that brought the Church into existence, defined who Christians were, and determined the missionary nature of their faith. Neither then nor now is it a truth that can be proven. Rather, it lays claim on those who enter it by faith and obligates them to bear witness to it by word and deed.
If the Church is by nature confessional, it is also missionary. One cannot claim and not bear witness to that claim in the world. Among the earliest “acts” of nascent Christianity was missionary impulse that bore witness to Kyrios Iesous in the Roman diaspora. The Church today must bear witness to the same claim not only in the geographic diaspora, but also, as a former East German Bishop said so well, “in the ideological diaspora of our times.” The particular relevance of this statement is not limited to churches that exist—or existed—in Communist countries. It is equally applicable to churches in permissive societies of materialism, consumerism, and hedonism.
The “ideological diaspora” is as evident inside the Church as outside it—and perhaps more so. The purpose of the Church is to be a beacon of hope in a foundering world. But when confusion about life’s meaning, disintegration of human values, and ignorance of the past erode the proclamation and witness of the gospel, the Church is no longer an alternative of hope to a world caught in a pluralistic vortex but a victim of it. There the horizontal prevails over the vertical; there contextualism, which inevitably leads to provincialism, eclipses the universal claim of the gospel. There too Church and gospel become reduced to a functionalism whose chief ends are those of liberal democratic society rather than the glory of God. There the gospel is anesthetized and the Church becomes an institution of accommodation rather than conversion.
Some year ago Professor Milan Machovec of Czechoslovakia, a Marxist participant in a Christian dialogue, said, “I don’t trust a Christian who isn’t interested in converting me.” Odd that a Marxist outside the Church would understand the gospel better than some Christians inside it! Professor Machovec’s aphorism recognizes that if the gospel is what it claims to be, then it obligates Christians to a prayerful, sincere, and courageous witness that the world might see the truth that controls them. A gospel whose concern is simply the improvement of society and not its conversion is neither confessional, missionary, nor Christian.
The Exousia of Jesus
We have spoken of the confessional nature of the Church, its missionary mandate, and an authority that frees it from the self-doubt and compromise that arises when the Church derives its mission from cultural and political causes. But whence cometh the Magna Charta of such freedom? Who or what enables the Church to recover such compelling authority? This is the essential question, and like all essential questions in the Church, it finds its answer in the One who said, “Follow me.” Jesus Christ is the Church’s one Lord. Jesus derived his authority from the acknowledgment and empowerment of God at his baptism by John, wherein the Spirit of God anointed him with power to actualize his nature of beloved Son and his mission of suffering servant.
The Gospels anchor the power and right by which Jesus astounded his contemporaries to his exousia—the authority, sovereign freedom, and intentional conviction of his life and ministry. Without apology or ostentation, Jesus did the unheard of in a society versed in the ways of God. He presumed to supersede Moses and the law, forgive sins, raise the dead, subdue nature, and proclaim good news, hope and liberation to the sick and oppressed. In selfless authority Jesus did nothing less than what God had done because Jesus was claimed by God as no one had ever been. His authority was entirely resident in himself: Jesus did not appeal to Rome as did the Sadducees, to the Torah as did the Pharisees, to a sacred and separated community as did the Essenes, or to visions and apparitions as did the prophets and apocalyptists. Jesus himself was the gospel.
Jesus’ authority and freedom found no counterpart in society—not even from the powerful and accomplished scribes. Nor did they find a precedent in the distinguished history of Israel. His exousia resulted from his unique and total claim by the Father. It was independent of and, when necessary, resistant to any competing authority that would usurp or bind its divine legitimacy. It surpassed that of his religious contemporaries: “A teaching—with authority, and not like the scribes” (Mark 1:21-28). It withstood political intimidation: “Go tell that fox Herod, ‘Behold, today I cast out demons, tomorrow I bring healing, and on the third day I am completed’” (Luke 13:32). It spurned militaristic options: “Put your sword in its place; those who take up the sword perish by it. Do you not know that I could appeal to my Father and he would send to me twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53). It disappointed social expectations: “Who set me up as a judge or arbiter between you and your brother?” (Luke 12:13-14).
It is often supposed that Jesus exercised such unambiguous authority because he lived in a simple, monochrome culture, whereas modern pluralism dictates that the Church adopt a more sophisticated and nuanced posture. This is a naive assumption. First-century Palestine was a pluralistic land of four languages, in which a vehement clash between an indigenous population and a foreign occupation, plus a deep rift between Jews and Gentiles, produced a veritable minefield on the eastern fringe of the Roman Empire. Within this kaleidoscope a host of political and religious parties vied for power by advocating varying degrees of compliance or resistance to Rome. The first three chapters of Mark’s Gospel present in rapid-fire succession a series of vignettes of Jesus’ interaction within this social, political and religious collage. The Gospels are clear that he fit none of the formulas of the day and conformed to none of its patterns. His mission was not to adapt to this or that niche but to confront every segment of society with a word of judgment and transforming grace. To self-assured insiders he posed discomforting questions; to forsaken outsiders he awakened hope. Everything depended on one’s response to him! Whomever he met at table or byways, whatever he taught by aphorism or parable, whatever he did by healing, exorcism, or miracle could not be understood apart from him, Jesus—Son of God and Servant of God.
The Gospels are clear about one more thing. Jesus’ exousia was determined as much by what he was against as by what he was for. I am aware how offensive this may sound to a generation that has been raised to believe that niceness and acceptance are the twin virtues of Christianity, but here too the Church must follow its Lord. All efforts to produce a gospel compatible with society have been disastrous for the Church’s witness and credibility. The Church cannot experience the renewal that is called for today without settling one account: confessing Christ as Lord means refusing that honor to anything else.
A Church in and for the World
I should like to close on a practical note. Specifically, what might the exousia of Jesus mean for the Church today? Allow me to venture the following:
• The Church must risk faithfulness to its Lord rather than acceptance by its culture;
• The Church must instruct its members in the content of the faith, train them for witness and service, and discipline them when necessary rather than accept membership at any price;
• The Church must proclaim with boldness the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, and free itself from pandering to narcissism, indulgence, and the cult of self-help;
• The Church must risk the naming of sin—social as well as personal—as the first and essential step to forgiveness, change, and wholeness;
• The Church must reclaim the pastoral office as the preaching office of biblical exposition, and free it from its captivity to managerial and psychological stereotypes;
• The Church must risk both the teaching and practicing of a responsible sexual ethic—faithfulness in marriage or abstinence outside—in a culture of rampant sexual immorality, confusion, and destructiveness;
• The Church must become an advocate of life from the womb to the grave, confronting rather than complying with the evils of abortion, euthanasia, racism, poverty, abuse, and militarism;
• The Church must proclaim that freedom comes not from an obsession with rights but from a call to responsibility on behalf of others; within the community of faith as well as beyond it;
• The Church must ground its existence in the sole lordship of Jesus Christ, apart from which this world—and our lives in it—are lost.
It is the authority of the One who said, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me” (Matthew 28:18), which the Church must reclaim if it is to be the Church of Jesus Christ and not the Christ of a particular culture or ideology. Apart from the person of Christ the Church has no existence, apart from the message of Christ the Church has no proclamation, apart from the call of Christ the Church has no mission. Its existence, message, and mission are his, for the Church is his body. He is present in it “in order that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God” (Phil. 2:10–11).
-Coalter, Milton J., Mulder, John M., and Weeks, Louis B., The Confessional Mosaic: Presbyterians and Twentieth Century Theology, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.
-Leith, John, H., From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Theology and Practice, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.
- Leith, John, H., The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988.
- Newbigin, Lesslie, Truth to Tell. The Gospel as Public Truth, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
-Osmer, Richard R., A Teachable Spirit. Recovering the Teaching Office in the Church, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990.
- Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Christentum in einer säklarisierten Welt, Freiburgim Breisgau: Herder, 1988.
- Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Vindication of Tradition, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.
This article has been adapted from a paper presented at the 1992 Wheaton Theology Conference on religious pluralism.
James R. Edwards is Professor of Religion and Chairman of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Jamestown College, Jamestown, North Dakota. He studied at Whiteworth, Princeton Seminary, Zürich, and Tübingen and holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Fuller Seminary.