In February I attended three sessions of the "Conversation on Denominational Renewal" conference here in St. Louis. The bios of the speakers, along with downloadable MP3s of their talks, are listed here. I went to seminary with three of the speakers: Bill Boyd, Jeremy Jones, and Greg Thompson, and with Kevin Twit, who led the music for worship. Not only that, but the conference was held at Memorial Presbyterian Church, where my family and I worshiped for about six years; I actually preached there a few times during my internship. (This was just before it reshaped its image and worship style to be more attractive to college students and young people.)
Being back there was surreal, just for those reasons. But in addition, here I was, now a Catholic (probably the only Catholic there) surrounded by familiar faces and friends from my Presbyterian seminary, and immersed again (for the first time in about seven years) in the very palpable PCA culture (in the manner of speech, the manner of prayer, and the manner of worship). That too made the experience surreal. How strange to feel [at least initially] somewhat like an outsider, among a community of which I had been a part only a relatively short time ago.
But then I began to listen to the talks. In all I heard Jeremy Jones' theological reflection, Bill Boyd's talk on worship, and Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology. Overall, I was very pleased with and pleasantly surprised by the talks, and impressed by the kind of conversation that was taking place. Not only do these men obviously and deeply love God from the heart, and not only are they diligently pursuing the truth even in Christian traditions outside the Reformed tradition, they are also laying down their lives daily to serve God in the positions and places where they are. I genuinely admire them for all those reasons, and I'm proud that they are my brothers in Christ, very proud. [Sidenote: Anthony Bradley was there as well (we graduated together from CTS), and when I saw recently that Fr. Zuhlsdorf linked Anthony's article on black liberation theology, I was delighted.] During Bill Boyd's talk, I was sitting about two pews ahead of Bryan Chappell, the President of Covenant Theological Seminary, and I heard him lean over to somebody next to him and say, "This is not your father's PCA". I concur. For me, it was a kind of PCA 'aggiornamento', a call to think more broadly than the limits of a particular ecclesial 'ghetto'.
I have divided my comments on this conference into two parts. In this first part, I will write about Jeremy Jones' talk titled "On Renewing Theology". In the second part, I will write about Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology. As for Bill Boyd's talk, I think it was excellent, and I recommend listening to it. In it he lays out the biblical account of the place of food and eating in community and worship. But I'm not going to say anything more here about Bill's talk.
There is so much I can agree with in Jeremy's talk, but I'm going to say little about that, and focus only on a point of disagreement. This creates a misleading impression, as though I primarily disagree with Jeremy, or as though I think Jeremy is mostly wrong. That's not true. There is a great deal of common ground. And I'm very grateful for all of these men, and for the gifts and talents and passion they are bringing to this discussion, both within the PCA and to the broader ecumenical discussion. My reason for focusing on the point of disagreement is precisely to help bring us to unity, by attempting to cast light on that which divides us. So I write this with charity in my heart for my brothers in the PCA, and affection as well.
Jeremy Jones began his talk by criticizing sectarianism. He defined 'sectarianism' as "the practical or theoretical identification of your tradition or some subset of it as the true Church." Sectarianism, he said, is the notion that
"We are the Church and others aren't". "At its root sectarianism is a sin." "It is the ecclesial form of the sin of pride." "Sectarianism is the sin of legalism: we functionally elevate human theological opinion to the level of Scripture. Sectarianism is the sin of idolatry: we worship our past, our tradition, its men, and movements, our theology, Confessions."
Later in his talk he talked about the importance of understanding the incarnation for contextualizing the Gospel, saying, "Our ultimate model for contextualization is the incarnation". As I see it, there is a tension between Jeremy's incarnational conception of spreading the Gospel and his non-incarnational conception of the Church. I say "non-incarnational conception of the Church" because he seems to hold a non-institutional conception of the Church. This non-incarnational conception of the Church treats the Church as per se invisible, being visible only in that her embodied 'members' are visible. For a more detailed explanation, see my post titled "Christ founded a visible Church" as well as (at least) the last four pages of my "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy" paper.
Jeremy's notion that sectarianism is a sin assumes that no existing institution is the institution that Christ founded. Of course the notion that, say, the PCA is the Church Christ founded is obviously false, since it was founded in 1973. The conception of the Church as invisible per se, and thus non-institutional per se, is intrinsic to denominationalism, for denominationalism by its very nature sees no need for any institution, including one's own denomination, to have been founded by the incarnate Christ. In this way, denominationalism is constantly in tension with itself, for either a denomination conceives of itself in the sectarian manner Jeremy describes above, in which case it runs into the problem that it was founded at least 1500 years after Christ ascended into heaven, or it conceives of itself as a part of a whole that is not itself an institution. But if the whole need not be institutionally organized, then neither does the part, hence the tension (to put it mildly). This seems to me to be an inescapable dilemma for denominationalism.
In the classroom, I not infrequently encounter student comments of the following sort: "Nobody has the whole truth; everybody just has a little part." Typically the conversation is about religion or ethics. Implicit in the student's comment is a kind of skepticism masked as egalitarianism and/or pluralism. It just wouldn't be right, goes this line of thought, to think that one group has the whole truth about x, and another group doesn't have the truth about x. They all must equally have the truth, or they all must have an equal share of the truth. I agree that in many if not most cases one person or group doesn't have the whole truth about a matter, but some students falsely tend to move from that premise to the conclusion that therefore all persons or groups have an equal share of the truth about that matter, or that everyone's opinion on a particular subject is of equal worth. Implicit in Jeremy's anti-sectarianism is a similar notion applied to religious institutions. It just can't be that one institution is the right one, the original one, the orthodox one -- that's elitist and neither egalitarian nor "catholic". This mentality serves almost as an a priori presupposition in his ecclesial methodology. Now, I myself believe that the various Protestant traditions have certain gifts and strengths that Catholics lack. So I agree that the Catholic Church doesn't have everything that Protestant traditions and persons have to offer. But I cannot rationally justify moving from that premise to the conclusion that the Catholic Church is therefore not the institution Christ founded. Moreover, loaded into the use of the word "catholic" [small 'c'] as supporting anti-sectarianism is a 'mere Christianity' glossing over of the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy, and all that is necessary to make that distinction.
If Jeremy's objection to sectarianism is an objection to the treatment of institutions that were not founded by Christ as though any particular one of them is the institution founded by Christ, then I agree with him. But it did not seem to me that he intended his condemnation of sectarianism to be qualified in that way. He seemed to present his critique of sectarianism in an intentionally unqualified way. In that case, his condemnation of sectarianism would carry with it one of two assumptions: (A) Christ founded an institution but then it fell to pieces and no longer exists, or (B) Christ did not found an institution. But (A) is a kind of ecclesial deism, which I have previously discussed. If unity is a mark of the Church, then the Church cannot lose visible unity, even in the event of schism. (See "Has Christ Been Divided?".) On the other hand, (B) calls into question the formation of denominations (including the PCA) as organizationally outdoing even what Christ Himself saw fit to do in organizing and establishing His Church. If Christ did not found an institution, then the very justification for the existence of any denomination or ecclesial institution is undermined, as is the justification for forming a single overarching ecclesial institution. (See here.)
This internal self-contradiction is the reason that denominationalism must necessarily collapse in the long run into an anti-sacramental Evangelicalism in which institutionalism is eschewed (for sacramentality is directly tied to an hierarchical and institutional conception of the Church), and the conception of the Church as per se invisible is explicitly embraced. Denominationalism is an untenable middle position between Catholicism on the one hand and the ecclesial individualism and anti-sacramentalism of Evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and biblicism on the other hand. Jeremy is most definitely right to see that there is a treasure-trove of theological riches in traditions outside that of the PCA. So, his effort to encourage Reformed Christians to allow themselves to be enriched by these treasures is most definitely a step in the right direction. But at that point (i.e. the point of having rejected sectarianism), how are Reformed Christians any different from Evangelicals and their invisible "Christian Church"? At that point one must either embrace Evangelicalism as one's ecclesiological destiny, or begin to seek out the institution that Christ founded.