Some Thoughts on the Apocalyptic Theses

Tony SigThere may be some who are not aware of something that has just happened on the internet. To my mind, it seems to be a moment signaling a potentially significant shift in the way internet theology is done: Nathan R. Kerr, Ry O. Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge recently composed a set of theses concerning what they feel are some troubling tendencies in contemporary theology to ‘prioritize’ the Church, presumably ‘over’ the ‘Gospel’ though this doesn’t quite come out explicitly…at least it hasn’t yet.

There have of course been internet blog symposiums and substantive engagement that has happened on the internet before. This is why I hesitate to say that this was itself a paradigm shifting kind of thing; nonetheless it seems to have generated a massive amount of fury and energy the likes I’ve yet to see in these kind of internet self-published theological debate. And it makes sense when theological journals can run over $150 bucks annually for a personal subscription, that the easy use, free cost and infinite availability of blogs can be, maybe, potentially, a viable site of exciting theological engagement.

People write controversial stuff on the internet all the time, but these theses went a step further by publishing simultaneously on The Other Journal, an online theological journal run by the Mars Hill Graduate School and one of the greatest things to happen to theological publishing since the advent of the internet. This meant at the very least that the Theses writers did not intend for their work to be merely a blog piece, however academic and engaging it was. *update* Over some confusion by readers the piece, which was never intended to be an edited academic piece, has been moved to the blog section of The Other Journal.

And so readers took it more seriously than a blog entry leading to nearly 250 comments, most of which were substantive as well as full fledged engagement from several other blogs. (The Other Journal, An Und Fur Sich – here, here and here, Church and Pomo – here and here, The Fire and the Rose…there may be others I don’t know about, if so please link in the comments)

The extreme posititions represented by the theses even garnered some charges of herterodoxy and the dialogue went too far in many cases, as most such blog comments are prone to do.

Thankfully I refrained, for once in my frickin life, from also saying things that I would regret later. I already have too many of those kinds of comments floating around the internet, plus I know one of the writers and enjoy having coffee with him. Indeed most of the concerns I have with the theses were addressed by more thoughtful and competent writers than me so I was not going to say anything.

But a recent comment struck me as so incredibly erroneous that I could no longer not at least enter the fray even though the conversation has settled down. I offer this in the spirit of gentleness and grace, in friendship and as a fellow brother in Christ. Nonetheless I doubt that my own concerns will sound so gentle in the phrasing so I can only ask that if Ry, Halden and Nate take the time to read them they will interpret me with the same generosity that I gave them on their site even if it’s the first time I’ve acted in such a way 🙂

If you’ve not read the theses, nor all the comments, nor the other blog posts as I have, some of this might not make sense. I apologize in advance to these readers.

My own points will themselves be ‘theses,’ that is, they will not be systematic expostitions, rather they are concise and at-this-point-unargued notes made in order to contribute to the discerning work of the Spirit through the Church.

  • I cannot abide the meta-critique of “Religion” vs “Gospel.” I find it to be as crude as Luther’s own Law vs Grace dichotomy and it utterly flattens out any hope of Scriptures multi-valent testimony to Christ from being heard in it’s proper complexity. It is an artificial dialectical abstraction that, rather than being formed by Scripture’s own plenitudinous testimony to Christ’s significance, takes too much authority from Karl Barth and is used to impose a theoretical structure as ultimate judge over the Spirit’s showing-forth of Christ who has “spoken through the prophets” in more than a single form.
  • This is why if followed through, this kind of theology does not seem to me capable of attending to the Old Testament scriptures in any consistent christological sense.
  • For instance the missional narrative of “exile” is by no means the only Scriptural way to speak about the Church in the world and it even misses that “Exile” in Scripture is punishment for apostacy and that the apostolic sending of the Paraclete in the Church is not judgement but joy. The properly Isaiahonic “Good News” is about return from exile, not it’s extension.
  • The dissolving of any difference between Church and World (Thesis 3) is actually to voice the total non-existence of the Church at all.
  • By so dissolving the Church, any “site” for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit seems also to slip by
  • This may in fact explain the paltry attention payed to the Spirit in the theses and this lack of serious reflection on the Spirit helps to make clear some other inherent weaknesses in the theses
  • For instance, by calling worship “a perpetual factory of idols,” and “the site of our deepest estrangement” and even to go so far in another comment as to say that any and all forms of worship are inherently idolatrous fails to account for the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit given to the baptized for the ministry and building up of the Church. Paul encourages the exercise of these gifts and exhorts us to praise God by the composing of hymns and spiritual songs.
  • The reason that worship is a site for reconciliation and not estrangement is because the Spirit proceeds through the Church back to the godhead and Herself returns the song of worship. This is why the etymology of the word “liturgy” is such a pointless thing to bring up. Liturgy as the Church knows it is where the Spirit worships through the Church by word, sacrament and the exercise of her unique gifts.
  • This is of course not to say that any and all acts of worship are purely of the Spirit…we are still ever being perfected, but it is exactly in worship that we are continually perfected.
  • The lack of attention to the Spirit also explains why the ad hoc and obligatory mention of the Sacraments make absolutely no sense. Or at least they make perfect Zwingilian sense. How could they make any other sense when it is “Jesus Christ alone [who] is constituitive of the church’s sacramental existence.” In worship we are included in the very life of the eternal and Holy Trinity; not the Word alone.
  • Also lacking is any substantive interaction with theology that is older than 100 years minus a passing nod to Aquinas in solidarity with Barth. Inasmuch as Christ has never been in want of a witness to His Holy Gospel this is an unfortunate fact about the theses. To name but an obvious example, where is any mention of the work of John of Damascus on holy Icons? Indeed what of the entire clash between iconodoules and iconoclasts? Is the testimony to Christ in the past of such little worth as to be ignored in favor of those whom are blind to the weaknesses of our own age?
  • One cannot miss that most of the Apocalyptic vocabulary is rather masculine and  violent.

And this brings us back full circle. This is a very Protestant and modern and some might say even, given it’s anti-“ecclesiastical” polemic, reactionary document. (I seem to remember a certain theses writer writing against “reactionary ecclesiology”) This is something that not even the many pious phrases uttered can fully conceal. It would be my hope that the naivety of saying that “we only testify to the Gospel” (emphasis added) can be politely passed over into more ‘epistemologically humble’ phraseology.

There is of course much to commend in these theses and I level no charges against their authors other than those I wrote here. Thank you Ry, Halden and Nate for taking the time to witness to the reconciliation of Jesus Christ and for sharing it with us.

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10 Comments

  1. Tony, I think this is a fair and charitable critique. You raise a good many questions about the presuppositions and ‘catholicity’ of Ry, Halden and Nate’s blog post.

    Those gentlemen are obviously brilliant, passionate about the community of faith, and wholly devoted to the mission of Christ.

    Nevertheless, I agree with you that there are elements in the theses that try too hard to understand our God-life through too narrow a lens on ecclesia, liturgy and sacrament.

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  2. Thanks for this response Tony, I just today fully realized the enormity of the comments/responses to the theses. I hadn’t been keeping up and was almost taken aback to see all the buzz generated. I think you’re right that its an interesting moment in “internet theology”. Since I missed so much so quickly it got me thinking about the pace of internet theology – its pretty rapid isn’t it? That lends itself to a really specific set of people (young males) I think or at least demands a sort of attentiveness that (I have to imagine) is really difficult to sustain.

    My complaints about the theses would be pretty close to your own adding in the whole church/world conceptual clarity charge. I would just add that I wouldn’t characterize the theses as Protestant, as such (not sure you are). I certainly can’t see a Catholic affirming them but its not as if the theses stand in the main stream of Protestantism either (contra David Congdon I guess).

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    1. Joey – I totally agree that these guys obviously care passionately about the Gospel.

      Mike – I think you’re right that the pace is really quite fast. I think we could actually slow it down by taking more time to respond but that doesn’t produce the same kind of energy really. But it also prevents mutual anathema! Also, I mostly mean that it is “Protestant” in that it simply doesn’t seem to operate on an ecumenical level and the arguments are initiated and sustained almost exclusively by Protestants (though they do mention Nicholas Healy). Now this isn’t automatically bad but considering the emphasis on the necessity of ecumenism in the theses themselves it seems a bit shy of its goal.

      Robb – I actually was able to read Dr. Long’s post before it was taken down. I thought it made some good points though I wonder about the appropriateness of an established scholar using “heterodox” in such a context especially considering that given the time lapse he couldn’t have reflected on the theses long enough to judge whether or not such a venue was appropriate for that kind of charge. Nonetheless it would make sense that I would bring up a couple points that he did given my own sympathies with RO.

      As to Exile I suppose it gets complicated since I believe that Scripture’s primary referent is Christ, there is potentially no limit to perceiving the ‘form’ of Christ in Scripture; so there may be an appropriate sense in which Exile can be used of the Church but only if we want to say that the Church is now suffering judgement in a way, say for division or something, but “Exile” generally seems to be a negative thing. There are many other ‘forms’ that express more clearly the fulfillment of prophecy and the sending of the Church, say Exodus and Leviticus on the Temple as it was a ‘type’ of Church being as we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit; or take the prophecies concerning Jerusalem and how in the eschatological age the “nations” will stream to her to be judged – this also can refer to the Church and it’s position in the world as ‘judge’ and to ‘bind and loose’ so to speak.

      The point is that the possibilities are endless and the ‘appropriateness’ of a reading is a matter of discerning the form of Christ in history with reference to Scripture. In this I am deeply indebted to the work of Ephraim Radner who would certainly be able to explain it better than me…I’m just an undergrad who reads theology in his free time.

      Brad – I really appreciated your own comments and my critiques are additional to your own which were certainly better put than my own. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply

  3. Tony,

    Thanks for this. I think you’re right on. It’s too bad Steve Long’s response disappeared over at The Church and Postmodern Culture (at least since last time I checked), as I hear you echoing some of the same points he made, especially in regards to this being an extremely “Protestant and modern…polemic.” Not only do I find it polemical and abrasive, it’s also sadly divisive and seems to mark a new and significant rupture within theological camps (Long also referenced this).

    Would you be willing to flesh out your point about exile? I know the Apocalyptic camp is way more concerned to stress the continuation of exile vs. the return, as they tend to regard return narratives as hovering too close to Constantinianism.

    Thanks again.

    Robb

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  4. I’m with you on several of these points, Tony, particularly on the Old Testament, all-liturgy-as-idolatrous, and the church and world. I think on that last point, in order to avoid collapsing the Kingdom of God into the church, they collapsed the church into the world. I agree – I don’t see it actually operative in their theses except as a phenomenon.

    Thanks, also, for your emphasis on Trinity. I had overlooked that.

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  5. This is why I visit this blog. Thank you for these thoughtful observations! I look forward to Nate and/or Halden’s response, as they can get pretty interesting (if somewhat un-self-aware).

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  6. Tony, a couple points:

    I had lunch with Steve Long (my dissertation director) on Tuesday, the day before he posted his latest comment on the thread. He admitted to me what he admitted in that comment: he’s just not that good at the whole “blog thing,” which he considers to be a generation-specific development. He doesn’t disparage the venue at all; he’s just not as up on it as his students. So the question of venue is relevant, but I think his relative lack of familiarity is understandable. As to the heterodox charge, as he technically defined it in his latest comment, I don’t know that it’s inappropriate from his point of view, even if it seems too highly charged for the blog venue.

    As to exile, I agree on its probable inappropriateness for the church, though with the caveat that Doug Harink provided in the comment after mine: exile and diaspora are not exactly the same thing. We can say the church is diasporic without saying it’s exilic (the former referring to sojourn, the latter with its punitive connotations). I think this might be a necessary move, and I look forward to reading up on Harink’s view in the next month or so.

    Now, lest I allow the “blog thing” to further disrupt my own work…

    Reply

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