Tuesday, October 11, 2005

fr. zahl on ecclesiology; me on the same

I don't get quite so riled about the church in general, and this is because experience has taught me to have a pretty low ecclesiology. In fact, the New Testament depicts the "church," i.e., the Pharisees and the Temple leaders and the people who persecuted St. Paul, in extremely unflattering perspective.

Do I have any "ecclesiology" at all? Based on experience in the church for decades now, if there is any ecclesiology there at all, it is pretty negative. The church, as an institution, punishes its own, and generally martyrs its own. If you really set a lot of store on entities such as "The Episcopal Church," you get disappointed, and deeply so. Because my theology focuses on other things than ecclesiology, I just don't lose so much sleep over the church, institutionally speaking. Meddling and intrusive bishops, punishing and exiling bishops, give me the creeps. But again, you can find big sins among the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Roman Catholics, and especially with their official leaders.

Did you read Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies? I think it is an obnoxious and perverse novel, but... there is a scene with a Presbyterian bureaucrat, interviewing a poor lost New Jersey pastor, that is about as crushing of any hopes you may have of a benign "church structure" as anything you could ever read -- outside of Tolstoy's Grand Inquisitor [NB: Its Dostoevsky, right? WB]. So I think we do best when we have a low ecclesiology.

Read the whole thing here.

I have to say, I disagree pretty strongly with Fr. Zahl (and with nearly everyone around me) about ecclesiology. Maybe that just means I'm not a good Anglican. But maybe it means that good Anglicans aren't good readers, markers, learners, and inward digesters of the Word of God.

Consider our Lord's own words about the Church in Matthew (16.18) (one of only two places in the gospels where the Church, as such, is mentioned): "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

Apart from the contentious first bit of this verse (though it was never contentious until the Reformation), what do we hear from our Lord about the Church? First, that he himself builds it. Second, that he builds it on a rock, i.e. with a firm, unassailable foundation. Third, that the gates of Hell shall NOT prevail against the Church. Fourth, that there is ONE Church. This all seems pretty important. I mean, our Lord himself seems to have a highish ecclesiology. At least he doesn't seem to think that the Church is just some fallen, corrupt, sinful, human institution that is ordained to perpetual fractiousness.

Consider Acts 20.28: "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son." We can glean from this verse that the Holy Spirit himself makes overseers for the Church (and through them, we might say, himself watches over the Church). But most significantly we learn that the Church was purchased by the Father "with the blood of his own Son." How dear to God must the Church therefore be? Unless the language of God's self-revelation be unintelligibly equivocal, the Church must be more dear to him than unclean lips can say: he bought it with the blood of his own Son. And if it is dear to him, for the sake of his own Son's blood, then for the sake of his own Son's blood ought it not be dear to us?

In Ephesians 1, the Father is said to have given all things to the Lord Jesus: "and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all." Again, it is for the Church (or "to the Church") that our Lord has been exalted by the Father. And indeed the Church is his mystic body, here called the very fullness of the Lord -- i.e. the Church is the fullness of the Filler of Everything. How can we then have a low regard for it? For it, the Church, is That through which "the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 3.10). The Church is the Vehicle ordained by God himself to manifest his own light to the whole world, that the whole world might come to know the sacramental plan of God "hidden for ages" in himself. What was hidden in God for ages? Is this not the Word of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and by the power of the Holy Spirit became flesh in the Virgin's womb?

This then is the sacramental plan, the "oikonomia tou mysteriou", the "dispensatio sacramenti" which the Father makes known through the Church (Ephesians 3.10): that the Word of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, became flesh in the Virgin's womb for our sake. This is the truth made known to the whole world through the Church. Ought we not then love the Church, since the Father has ordained the Church for the manifestation of this saving mystery? Ought we not love Her because we love her office and because we share her mission, because as Christians we exist ONLY in her bosom, and not least because we have ourselves been delivered from sin and death through her sacramental ministry?

And then there is Ephesians 5. O, Ephesians 5, wherein is revealed the true, beautiful, glorious nature of Holy Mother Church! How can we have a "low view" of our Lord's own Bride, whom he is destined to present to himself "without spot or wrinkle... holy and without blemish" (5.27)? How can we dare hold in low regard what the Lord Jesus nourishes and cherishes as his own flesh (5.29)? And you see that Ephesians 5 refers back to Ephesians 3: the Church is indeed the sacramental custodian of the Lord's own flesh. Christian marriage points or refers, in the dispensation of sacramental signification, to the oneness of the Church and the Flesh of the Lord Jesus.

It is for this reason, beloved, that we must conform ourselves to the teachings of Holy Mother Church. Because our Lord submitted himself to death for HER sake (Ephesians 5.25), and because to HER is entrusted by God himself the mystery that saves us from eternal death. She alone can illuminate that mystery which is otherwise inscrutably and impossibly withheld in the darkness of the Godhead (Ephesians 3.9). If we would have communion with the substance of the Body of Christ, without which there is no life in us (John 6.53), we had better hold fast in the Bosom of his Bride, for whom he gave himself up to death. If we would be sanctified, we had better hold fast in the Bosom of his Bride, because for his own sake he sees fit to ordain Her to sanctification and glory.

It is for these reasons that I cannot understand a "low ecclesiology". How can we have a low regard for what God will present to himself in splendor?

Incidentally, Beloved, Ephesians 5 is the key to the Christian understanding of sex and marriage. And it must be read, among other things, within the context of Creation as in Genesis.


Johnny Awesomo said...

Finally, WB, a post that makes sense! I agree with you. No, it is not Tolstoy, and no, Beauty of the Lilies is not perverse. It is awesome.


J-Tron said...

I generally agree. Even from a Protestant perspective it makes little sense to be decidedly against the Church, as the Church herself is celebrated in scripture.

I do think Dean Zahl has a point in regards to institutions though. They tend to carry with them all of the baggage of sinful fallen humanity that individuals do. It's insane to think that an individual is rotten and yet a group of individuals is righteous. History shows us otherwise.

Understand that I in no way mean to posit a view of an "invisible church." That is a foreign notion that entered the faith at the time of the reformation and has been uncomfortably hanging around ever since. The Church is material, visible, real. She has an institutional component. But we are foolish if we put our faith in the institution rather than in the Spirit which is sent to lead us, just as we are foolish to think that our individual thoughts on faith trump the wisdom of the Church's full lived experience in Christ.

Other said...

What Zahl understands is Sin. And he understands it due to years in the exact place you have entered. He understands the unavoidable inconsistency of the men who make up the Church in relation to the unfailing, perfect consistency of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose saving act upon the Cross allows us to escape what we deserve. He understands that, despite his efforts to live a "sanctified" life, at one point, he will fail. It is in this failure and despair that he experiences grace- an experience that has nothing to do with the Church.

It seems to make little sense to me to decidedly exonerate an institution- often times it is the "material, visible, real" Church that, too, fails, getting in the way of the Gospel. We are to worship Christ inside the Church; not the robes, incense, prayers and everything else that goes along with the Church itself. Of course, this is not necessarily the case. But it seems that the current debates that pepper the Internet are all in reaction to a presumed misinterpretation that people have of the role Church should play in our lives. Shouldn’t the question really be why we continue to grossly underestimate Our Lord’s power and ability to reveal his light in the World? If it was only through the Church that this could be done, than we both worship a lesser God than the Bible presents and are doomed. And yes Christ did die for the Church in that he died for all mankind. It is mankind that makes up the Church as we know it today so this is a fair statement- to say that he only died for the Church is not, as is it not fair to say that She alone is the only way the Gospel can be revealed. This belief, again, simply underestimates both the Sin of man and the magnitude/power of our Lord. The Lord depends not on His Church to do His work.

Let us not bash the "Mother Church" but let us, please, not worship "Her" either.

father wb said...

Other --

I take your point. And someone recently pointed out, in the blogosphere somewhere, that Lutherans are emphasizing a pastoral reality in their insistence on "grace alone" whereas Catholics are emphasizing an ontological reality in their insistence on our ability to cooperate with grace -- that the two are not mutually exclusive.

But when you say that the experience of grace "has nothing to do with the Church" I must protest. Returning to Ephesians 3, I think it is clear that the experience of grace has EVERYTHING to do with the Church.

"To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places."

Paul is clear that it is THROUGH THE CHURCH that the wisdom of God, the plan of the mystery of salvation in the riches of Christ is made known. If this isn't the content of grace, I don't know what is. And it is because of this truth that the Fathers (Irenaus, Origen, Augustine, Cyprian, Ambrose, Jerome, and just about any who have considered the subject) have consistently and explicitly insisted that extra ecclesiam nulla salus: there is no salvation outside of the Church.

If there is any grace in the flesh of Christ (and I insist that EVERY grace is in the flesh of Christ), then the Church is the repository of grace:

"For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body."

Does this mean that members of the Church, individually and often in groups, do not blaspheme, sin, and spurn the grace of the Body whereof they are members? Of course not. A cursory glance at ECUSA makes that painfully clear. But such sin is just our failure to allow the life of the Body to well-up in our veins.