How *Not* to Do Historical Theology

I have been known to be in various times and places a fan of John Williamson Nevin, but re-reading his articles on “Cyprian” last night, I was a bit shocked and disappointed at his duplicity.  He sketches in the starkest terms the contrast between “Cyprianic Christianity” (which he takes to be normative for the early church as a whole” and Protestantism, always in terms flattering to the former and disparaging to the latter, and then constantly pulls back and says, “Hey, I’m not passing any judgments, man!  Just settin’ some historical facts on the table for your consideration.”  This shiftiness reaches proportions that can only be described as despicable at the conclusion of the fourth and final article, at which point, having ostentatiously declared the fundamental incompatibility of Protestantism with the early church, he says,

“If it be asked now, what precise construction we propose to apply to the subject, we have only to say that we have none to offer whatever.  That has been no part of our plan.  If we even had a theory in our thoughts that might be perfectly satisfactory to our own mind, we would not choose to bring it forward in the present connect; lest it might seem that the subject was identified in some way, with any such scheme of explanation.  What we have wished, is to present the subject in its own separate and naked form, not entangled with any theory; that it may speak for itself; that it may provoke thought; that it may lead to some earnest and honest contemplation of the truth for its own sake.  The importance of the subject, the nature of the facts in question, is not changed by any theory that may be brought forward for their right adjustment with the cause of Protestantism.  This or that solution may be found unsatisfactory; but still the facts remain just what they were before.  There they are, challenging our most solemn regard; and it is much if we can only be brought to see that they are there, and to look them steadily in the face.  We have had no theory to assert or uphold.  We offer no speculation.  Our concern has been simply to give a true picture of facts.  The difficulty of the whole subject is of course clearly before our mind.  We feel it deeply, and not without anxiety and alarm.  But we are not bound to solve it, and have no more interest in doing so than others.  We have not made the difficulty in any way.  We are not responsible for it, and we have no mind or care at present to charge ourselves with the burden of its explanation.  There it stands before the whole world.  It is of age too, we may say, full formed and full grown; let it speak then for itself.”

Reminiscent of “contraceptive historiography” at its worst, one has to say.


Ecclesiology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is perhaps one of the most difficult and elusive areas of theology, despite the fact that its content seems so empirically obvious.  With soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, we are dealing with things that happen largely invisibly within us, and in some vague future judgment.  With eschatology, the doctrine of “the last things,” we are dealing with things entirely future, and largely hidden from our perception.  But the object of ecclesiology, “the church,” is right in front of us, all around us, right?  We see numerous churches as part of our normal experience, and “the church” can simply be described as the totality of these, the whole body of those who call on the name of the Lord—right?

This apparently simple description, however, becomes more complicated when we try to relate the rather messy empirical reality of churches as we find them to the rather exalted language that Scripture often uses in speaking of the Church.  And indeed, given the importance of the church, Scripture is remarkably elusive in how it speaks of this fundamental Christian reality, resorting almost entirely to a rich array of metaphors which seem to bear little obvious relation to one another.  I borrow the following catalogue from Herman Bavinck:

the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them, the building, the temple, the house of God, built up out of living stones on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets, the people, the possession, the Israel of God.  The members of the church are called branches of the vine, living stones, the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. (Reformed Dogmatics IV.298)  

What are we to make of all this?  We might seek to gain some illumination from the Old Testament, seeing, as Christian theology has frequently done, the church as the New Israel, the continuation or rather fulfillment of the people that God called out of Egypt, and who worshipped him in the centuries before Christ.  But the discontinuities between the church and Israel seem to loom as large as the continuities: Israel was at the same time a political state, whereas the church makes no such pretensions, but lives amidst, though distinct from, the political states of the world, even when such states confess Christ; Israel had at the center of her identity one geographical location, whereas the church is called to be spread over all the world; Israel had detailed and specific laws governing her worship and religious identity, whereas the church does not.  These discontinuities mean that although important to helping us construct a doctrine of the church, the Old Testament will hardly relieve our difficulties in that task.   Read More