The Church and Controversy: Provocations and Consensus

I’ve finally had the opportunity to go back and finish my review of the Aberdeen conference on Controversy and the Church, though I was forced to end much more concisely than I began.  Four short posts will follow on some remaining highlights–Robert Jenson’s lecture “On Creative and Destructive Provocations,” Markus Muhling on “The Church’s Unity without Consensus,” Vigen Guroian on “Debating the Status of Same-Sex Marriages,” and then the roundtable discussion about the controversy over homosexuality.

Jenson, as one might imagine, was a joy to listen to–he, like Hart, had to join us via videoconference, but he still exuded a powerful presence.  In his lecture, he sought to sketch two examples of provocations that were destructive, but which God turned to the good, two that were just plain destructive, and always have been, and two that proved creative and edifying for the Church. 

As examples of the first two, he gave the classic case of Arianism, in which a harmful teaching that came into the Church proved creative of a robust theological response which led to greater maturity, and the rather less classic case of Luther’s marriage to Katarina von Bora, which was a scandal in its day, even among many of Luther’s followers, but has given us the rich benefits (acknowledged even by many Catholics) of married clergy. 

As examples of purely destructive provocations, he gave the case of Gene Robinson and the case of Marcion, and here some of his remarks were memorable.  What Marcion effected, he said, was to make the presence of the Old Testament a question for the Church, something that the Church had to work out and justify, and the Church has never recovered from that.  We take it for granted that the NT is authoritative, as if it anteceded and funded the Church, which it did not, and then we ask to what extent the OT is authoritative, as if it did not antecede and fund the Church, which it did. “The true question is not whether the Church needs OT Scripture, but whether Israel’s Scripture needs the Church,” he concluded, to an outburst of applause.

Then there are, of course, some provocations that are clearly constructive, although in a fallen world, even these will include unwanted painful side-effects.  As an example of such a creative provocation, he offered the preaching of black-white equality in the 1960s, which was deeply provocative, but deeply needed and something for which we are all now thankful.  A constructive provocation, he suggested, will usually challenge something that we want to keep, but about which we have a perennially bad conscience, and therefore tend to protest too much.

In conclusion, he turned to the recurring question, why are provocations such a central part of the Church’s life?  Here, unsurprisingly, his answer was somewhat different from Webster.  Perhaps we should recognize provocation as a fundamental ontological category. God’s dealing with his people are structured in terms of conversation, and perhaps provocation is God’s only way of continuing the conversation with his fallen yet beloved creation.  We recognize that God speaks to us in terms of law and gospel–God’s demand and God’s promise.  We must not synthesize the two, and yet we must hold on to both.  And if this is so, there will always be provocations, and perhaps the more provocation, the better.


In a lecture the next day, Markus Muhling explored the idea of church unity without consensus.  His argument was in fact that this is what we should expect and seek, because consensus does not emerge spontaneously and attempts both to perceive it and to bring it about are always forced.  Indeed, a unity based on consensus is ethically inferior to one based not on consensus, but on tolerance.  Tolerance, he argued, was not of course a holding of all viewpoints to be equally valid, but rather presupposes that I think I’m right and you’re wrong, and thus your error is something that I have to learn to tolerate.  Learning to show such tolerance is learning, like Christ, to suffer on behalf of the other; to accept the insecurity that his opposition brings.  Whereas consensus provides cozy feelings that make us feel safe in our personal identity, tolerance forces us to feel threatened.  

This I found to be compelling and challenging.  Nevertheless, I would want to maintain that there is an eschatological progression, so that the Church does grow toward consensus, at least if this is understood as a polyphonic harmony, though certainly not a bland and static unity.  We must and should learn to tolerate alternative viewpoints, but that does not mean that we do not press on in the hope of resolving these differences.  Muhling’s starkly amillenialist eschatology, however, prevented him from drawing such a conclusion.  He viewed the difference between in via and in patria, the eschatological difference, as a categorical rather than a gradual difference.  Anyone, he said, who wants to see consensus as essential to the Church mistakes this categorical difference for a gradual difference, and such millenarianism results in totalitarianism.  

An overhasty millenarianism results in totalitarianism to be sure, but it is possible to be a patient postmillenialist rather than a triumphalistic one, even if history warns us how easy it is to fall into such triumphalism.  Eschatology, this conference suggested to me, is key to how we view controversy in the Church.  The first lecture examined Luther’s anti-Jewish polemics, and concluded that much of his harshness emerged later in life when his hopes of the imminent Christianization of the world and return of Christ seemed to be in vain.  It was as if he sought to forcibly bring about the eschaton by increasingly forceful rhetoric, and it proved sadly divisive.  Leithart suggested that this was a common theme of conflicts in Church history–over-optimistic millenarian expectations collapsing into pessimism, and generating in both cases an urgency and anger that led to intense conflict (this, perhaps, relates in interesting ways to David Bentley Hart’s thesis about the cause of controversy).  If both apocalyptic premillenialism and triumphalistic postmillenialism generate divisive angry conflict, then, it would seem, the solution is to be found in patient amillenialism.  But I would suggest that the postmillenial element is still necessary, emphasizing, like Webster’s lecture, that God is already resolving conflict and gaining the victory and will continue to do so, a faith that gives us the confidence to approach conflict with patience and reliance on the power of God.  

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