The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More


Church Discipline in the Reformation

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that for a brief spell last summer, I was churning out a number of posts related to Reformed views of church discipline in the sixteenth century.  Those were, as it were, the scraps on the cutting room floor from an article I was helping my friend Jordan Ballor write for the online journal EGO: European History Online.  After nine months of peer review and such, the article is finally up here.

While the topic may sound a bit arcane, it is in fact crucial to understanding the development of Reformed ecclesiology and political theology, topics near and dear to my heart, as they should be near and dear to yours.  Although our article is largely encyclopedic in intent (that is to say, to provide a broad overview of the whole topic, rather than advance a particular new argument), we do seek to challenge entrenched misconceptions at a couple points.

First, we argue that it is dangerous to do history too much in hindsight, starting from the fact of later rifts and reading those back into earlier periods.  Accordingly, we suggest that the  Zurich/Geneva dichotomy (Erastian vs. Calvinist models of church/state relations), a firm fixture of Reformation scholarship, while a clear reality of the post-1570 world, should not be overstated when we are talking about earlier periods.  The two models shared a number of key similarities amidst their differences, and neither side (particularly the Zurichers) insisted that theirs was the only right way of doing things.  Indeed, there were a number of hybrid forms in other Reformed cities and principalities, which combined elements of each vision.  Moreover, inasmuch as there were two models, it is somewhat inaccurate to see the second as the creation of Calvin and Geneva; to a large extent, Calvin developed his approach from those used in Basel and Strasbourg. Read More


Some Excellent Reflections on Church Discipline

In the absence of finding time to write the posts I keep promising to write (more systematic reflections both on women’s ordination and on the “rules of engagement” for thoughtful, charitable, but principled theologial debate), I’ll keep stalling by pointing you to good things other people have written.  Thankfully, I don’t have to look far to find some.

My friend Joseph Minich, with whom I’ve had a number of very fruitful conversations on these questions in recent months, has just posted (on his brand-new blog), a set of excellent reflections on church discipline and church authority.  In essence, he tries to demystify the whole concept (which a lot of recent writing on “recovering high ecclesiology” among Reformed Presbyterian types has worked hard to re-mystify) with good old-fashioned Reformation Protestantism.  If the authority of the minister (and the elders) is only the Word, then a sentence of discipline has no spiritual ramifications unless it is a true application of the Word to the individual’s spiritual state.  And, as a corollary, the application of the Word by any old fellow congregant, who sees the need to all his brother to account, is of equal weight.  Ministers do have a particular authority, but it is a non-conscience-binding prudential authority over prudential matters of polity, as well as the informal moral authority of wisdom and vocation.  

Joe addresses ecclesiology, contending, “the visible church is just the totality of the baptized in the world. The church is just the people of God called out of the world. They exist prior to their institutional expression,” and then also gets into questions of what the term “the Church” really means when we get down to brass tacks and talk about concrete ecclesial communities:

Am I “more obligated” to members of my local church than to members of another local church? Am I “more” of a spiritual family with my local church than with other believers throughout the world? Should I submit my resources and my calling “more” to the local church than to other churches, believers, or unbelievers? If the institutional church is just the natural political expression of the baptized community, then the answer to all these questions is very simple: It depends – and it depends on precisely the same sorts of “neighbor loving” or “group” considerations that obtain in any other institution.”

Read the whole post here.


Calvin Against the Anabaptists

In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.  

In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits.  (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.)  Here is the nub of the matter:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there.  Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

“We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent.  Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church.”

He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?

On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated “churches” despite their severe corruptions.

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24).  Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47).  These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that “even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord’s cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace”; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.  

Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present.  For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29).  What more do we want?  Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad.”

It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:

“For we owe this honor to the Lord’s holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists.  Otherwise, what would you have?  That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured.  But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:

“it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men.  For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.

“In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours.  But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God.”

 

The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly?  (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another.  To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin’s context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.)  The Anabaptists said that “wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there.”  Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious.  Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons.  Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!).  Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:

“a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord’s Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy.  To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen.  Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper.  Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper as long as he lives in that place.”

Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system.  Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:

“he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, ‘Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.

“In these words there are two matters to note.  The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance.  The second is, that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself.”

 

In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:

“let us take thought of what we can do.  And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin’s Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)


Genevan Mythbusters

My essay, “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?” is now up over at the Calvinist International, summarizing some of my recent barrage of research into the development of church discipline and ecclesiology in 16th-century Calvinism.  In it, I ask how much typical narratives of Calvin’s ecclesiology correspond to what he actually said and did in Geneva.  On a conventional narrative,

“We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution.  This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor.  Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members.  Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters.  Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme.  And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith.  Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join).  Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.”

But what do we actually find?  Well, you can go read the rest of the essay to find out.