Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 3b: Balthasar’s Christological Constellation

Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church presents the most intriguing accounts of charismatic movements in the Church I’ve encountered thus far.     Balthasar provides an interesting example of an attempt to create legitimate space for radical movements of the Spirit within a robustly catholic ecclesiological framework.  The particulars of his argument are strange, and difficult for a protestant to digest, but his approach is sophisticated, and deserves engagement.  I include it under the “charismatic in legitimate tension with institutional” type, along with Rahner, but as a bit of an aside, given that the form of Balthasar’s argument is so idiosyncratic.

For Balthasar, the tension between stable orthodox Church structures and movements of renewal is inherent in the very nature of the Church.  This is seen most clearly in his use of the concept of the “christological constellation.” Balthasar’s argument is that just as Christ cannot be understood apart from his relation to the Father and the Spirit, so also he cannot be understood apart from the human relationships which were central to his historical life on earth.  John the Baptist, Mary, Peter, John, James, and Paul are all essentially related to Jesus and are therefore integral to christology (The Office of Peter, 136-137).  As the historical foundation of the Church, the members of the constellation are interpreted by Balthasar as “Realsymbols” or structural principles on which the church is founded, and through whom the presence of Christ is mediated to the Church (Office of Peter, 226-227).  Each member of the constellation is described according to their relationship with Jesus: the Baptist as a herald; Mary as the all-embracing perfect response to the grace of the Lord; Peter as one who participates in the authority of Christ in a singular way; John as the beloved who in love mediates between Peter and Mary; James as the one who takes Peter’s place in Jerusalem and represents continuity between the Old and New covenants; and finally Paul, the one untimely born who nevertheless takes the lion’s share of Christ’s mission, even though there seems to be no place for him among the college of the apostles.

Because the Church did not emerge en bloc, but is founded on the prophets and apostles, the particular relationship of each of the members of the constellation is prototypical for the Church.  Specifically, after Pentecost, Balthasar argues that there is a fourfold structure of the Church which emerges: the Pauline, Jacobite, Johannine, and Petrine aspects of the Church.   He sketches the constellation like this:

These are the four ways in which the Church is embodied in the world, and every community and every individual Christian life takes shape amid the tension and dynamism that exists between these poles. The Church “expresses itself concretely in the dynamic interplay of her major missions and in the laws inherent in her structure” (Office of Peter, 314-315).

In Balthasar’s scheme, the orthodox structures of the Church are interpreted as the Petrine and Jacobite aspects, while the movements of renewal are interpreted as Pauline.  Obviously the Petrine aspect of the Church is seen in office, and the Jacobite aspect is seen in Church law and tradition.  What is specific about the Pauline aspect is precisely Paul’s uniqueness, his supernumerary relationship to the apostles, and the unpredictable way in which he was chosen for his task directly by the Lord.  Because Paul is unique, his “successors” can only be identified by remote analogies as those who have charismatic vocations, whose recognition by those in office is compelled by divine evidence (Office, 159).  The founders of religious orders are examples of such direct divine vocations, according to Balthasar.  These movements of renewal are never founded by those in office, but by unexpected the founders of renewal movements, whose lives of sanctity “fall into the garden of the Church like a meteor” (The Laity and the Life of the Counsels, 67).  Their divine vocations must be tested by those in authority, but once tested, their unique missions and “charisms” cannot be suppressed.  These saints, “struck by God’s lightning,” ignite a blaze in those who gather around them, offering the Church hope of renewal and reform (The Laity, 42).  The religious orders that have arisen unexpectedly in response to these movements are able to radiate their light into the whole Church, moving outwards in concentric circles from the point at which lightning has struck (The Laity, 88).  The Petrine office is indispensable, but it is conceived by Balthasar as one aspect of the christological constellation, and must be seen in relation to the whole.  Because the Spirit works in unpredictable ways as well as through the official structures of the Church, Peter’s task is limited to making judgments and rendering verdicts amid the tensions that arise in the life of the Church.  He represents unity, but in so doing he must make space for others.

The unity of the Church is maintained when these major missions are understood in relation to the whole constellation.  The challenge is to achieve a reintegration of the elements which are isolated, in order that the tensions inherent between them may be lived out fruitfully within the mystery of the Church as Body and Bride of Christ.  In fact, the tensions between the principal figures of the constellation “all point to the mysterium; they are its necessary expression, not shortcomings on the part of the Church that need to be corrected by “changing its structure”” (Office of Peter, 24).  The history of the church can even be described by Balthasar as “an evident contest,” between the various poles of the christological constellation (Office, 314).  This process of contesting, for Balthasar, has a legitimate and community-creating value for the Church.  The church as ecclesia semper reformanda takes shape as various poles in the constellation are put back in their place, and a proper balance between the various aspects of the Church is established (Office of Peter, 314). The tension between the members of the constellation is the “force field” which generates apostolic missions.

What I like about Balthasar’s approach is that he avoids a simple opposition between “institutional” and “charismatic” without giving too much ground in one direction or the other.  His christological constellation is an innovative way of attempting to conceive of the complex human and divine reality which is the people of God.  It provides a way for discussing the history of the Church as it relates to charismatic movements, without smoothing out the conflicts that have often ensued between the movements and the established Churches.   The conflicts themselves are not so much a “problem” but an inherent part of what it means to be the Church.  This means we don’t need to “resolve” the conflicts between movements of renewal and established structures by siding with one side or the other (as has often happened in Church history).  The Church in her total reality needs both stable orthodox structures and unpredictable movements of renewal.

In the end, however, the particulars of Balthasar’s argument are a bit too idiosyncratic to be useful across ecumenical lines. The obvious problem (for protestants) with his approach is the high place which is afforded to the four apostolic figures in the ongoing life of the Church – even to the point of speaking of their “mediation” of Christ.  To be sure, Balthasar absolutely upholds the uniqueness of Christ, and is not assigning salvific value or merit to the apostles.  However, he argues (and I will grant that it is an interesting suggestion) that Jesus, fully divine but also fully human, cannot be understood apart from the human relationships he established during his life on earth, especially his relationships with those who were very close to him.  Historically speaking, we can also see how these primary persons in Jesus’ inner circle became the nucleus of the primitive Church.  Fair enough, but it is a stretch to move from these affirmations to four foundational principles for the Church in her continuing historical life.   While Balthasar’s theory is loosely grounded in the biblical narrative, the connection to the actual scriptural witness is quite tenuous, and leaves us wondering if he’s reading Church history back into the character of the four apostles.  Has he simply used these four biblical figures as a convenient means of conceptualizing what he believes are essential aspects of the Church?  I suppose if you begin from a Roman Catholic perspective, and you already accept the special role assigned to Peter as an essential aspect of the Church for all time, then it is not too much of a stretch to discuss similar principles of ecclesial life as grounded in other apostolic figures.  If that is the case, could his approach retain some merit, independently of the somewhat novel theory of these four apostles as Realsymbols of the Church?  Can we gain anything from his approach, without buying into the mediating role that Balthasar assigns to Peter, James, John, and Paul?   What would be left?  A set of “principles” which are inherent to the life of the Church?  On what foundation could such a set of principles be identified, if not on the basis of the apostles?  On strictly historical grounds, we can see how the history of the Church, interpreted from a broadly catholic point of view, supports these affirmations.  Should the lessons of Church history regarding renewal movements provide us with a normative basis for conceiving of the Church’s nature?  I want to say yes, but I’m still sorting out the details of how the argument can be made.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 3: Charismatic in Legitimate Tension with Institutional

Karl Rahner provides a perspective on the place of charismatic movements which recognizes the tension that exists between the charismatic and institutional aspects of the church, without prioritizing the charismatic as more fundamental. In The Dynamic Element in the Church Rahner attempts to overcome the opposition between “charism” and “office” by reframing the question in terms of “the charisma of office” and “non-institutional charismata” (42-58).  The charisma of office must be affirmed, Rahner argues, if the Church is to be conceived as the one abiding historical entity which was has its foundation in the apostles, and continues to be “always the locus and visible manifestation of grace” by virtue of God’s promise (43). The church must be conceived of as charismatic, otherwise the Catholic affirmation of the Church’s visible continuity would be based on the juridical power of the institutions themselves.

“…because the grace of God is not only offered to mankind as a possibility, but is promised to the Church as a victorious grace more powerful than sin, it is certain from the outset from God’s side and from him alone, that ecclesiastical office in what most properly belongs to it, in its essence, will not, though it could, be used as a weapon against God.  To that extent, therefore, ecclesiastical office and ministry is charismatic in character, if we understand by charismatic, what is in contradistinction to what is purely institutional, administered by men, subject to calculation, expressible in laws and rules” (43-44).

For example, Papal infallibility must imply that, “in order to be what it is,” the papacy “passes into the charismatic sphere” (45).

However, in order to distinguish itself from totalitarianism, the Catholic church must affirm that the hierarchy is not the only vehicle through which the Spirit works, but that “there are charismata, that is, the impulsion and guidance of God’s Spirit for the Church, in addition to and outside her official ministry” (49).  Rahner posits that “a legitimate opposition of forces” arises as an unavoidable result of the “multiplicity of impulsions in the Church” (73). That is, these forces are felt and experienced by human beings on earth as disparate and opposed to one another, “precisely because they are unified by God alone.” (74)  This means that there will be conflict and tension in the Church, with both sides needing to be “protected” from the other:

“Now it is no doubt a rule, a normative principle and a law for the spiritual gifts themselves, that they should operate in an “orderly” way, that they are not permitted to depart from the order prescribed by authority…Yet this formal rule alone would not of itself guarantee the actual existence of harmony.  For although official authority might be sufficiently protected by the rule from merely apparent spiritual gifts, the charismata also need to be protected from the authorities” (52)

What is required for visible unity in the present Church is “the love which allows another to be different, even when it does not understand him” (74).

Rahner connects his perspective to the question of reform movements by speaking of “the possibility of institutional regulation of a gift of the Spirit” (58). Movements such as the Franciscans are examples of the “institutionally organized transmission and canalization” of the gift of their founder.

“Not only Francis but the Franciscans too are charismatics if they really live in a spirit of joyous poverty.  What would Francis mean to the Church if he not found disciples throughout the centuries?  He would not be the man of charismatic gifts in the sense we have in mind here, but a religious individual, an unfortunate crank, and the world, the Church and history would have dropped him and proceeded with their business” (59).

In this way the charismatic element in the church is passed on through institutional means, which are courageously received and approved by the Church, as the charismatic movement in question submits to her authority and law. This aspect of “regulation” of the Spirit is, for Rahner, an essential part of the reform movement’s vocation, in which the charismatic element of the Church shows that it truly belongs to the Church and its ministry. Speaking of submission to the Church’s regulation, Rahner writes, “It is precisely here that it is clear that the charismatic element belongs to the Church and to her very ministry as such” (59).

Rahner’s subtle argument has much to commend it from the perspective of the Church’s history, providing a way of affirming the essential place of both established structures and unpredictable movements of the Spirit that arise from outside the usual official ministries.   In particular, it is interesting to see how a Catholic thinker reflects on the role of a founder, and how the charismatic gift given to a founder can be institutionally preserved by the Church.  It is precisely this idea that I think needs to be looked at ecumenically, with particular reference to protestant charismatic movements.   How should such institutional regulation take place?  Could some protestant divisions have been avoided, if the establised church(es) had found a way to incorporate the movements in question (i.e., Methodism, The Salvation Army, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, Classical Pentecostalism), affirming their place and giving them a measure of autonomy while also maintaining structural ties?

I’ll come back to this in discussing the fifth perspective in my typology, “Charismatic enlivens institutional” – a view which is very similar to Rahner’s perspective, but goes further in specifically discussing the role of charismatic movements in bringing life and renewal to the Church as a whole.

Describing the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a hymn or worship song to describe the goodness of God, what would go at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

Last year I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for one.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what Wesley had done.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” thing.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

Let’s not rush past the contemplation of the cross this Good Friday.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 2: Charismatic more fundamental than Institutional

This second perspective might seem similar to the “charismatic opposed to institutional” view, but there are some important differences.  In this perspective there is still a priority placed on the charismatic element of the Church, but the institutional structures are valued as necessary and themselves empowered by gifts of the Spirit.

For this perspective I’m taking Leonardo Boff as a representative.  Boff, of course, is a well known Brazilian theologian, an important figure in liberation theology.  He was orignally a Franciscan priest, but was silenced more than once for his views (including those found in the book I’m discussing here), and eventually he left his order and the priesthood.   He also has a pretty snazzy website, I’ve just discovered.

Leonardo Boff gives a strong priority to charismatic gifts arising “from below”, that is, from the grassroots, but he is also willing to speak of “hierarchical charisms.” So for Boff, the institutional side of the church is not simply devoid of the Spirit’s guidance, though there may be tensions between charismatic and institutional.  However he does view the historical institutionalization of the Church as a “failure” in a sense.  Writing about Catholicism in general, he writes that “A christological emphasis on the level of the incarnation led the Latin Church to excessive institutional rigidity.” (Church Charism and Power, 154)

However, his solution is to prioritize the charismatic over the institutional, not to oppose the two:

Charism includes the hierarchical element, but not exclusively.  Charism is more fundamental than the institution.  Charism is the pneumatic force (dynamis tou Theou) that gives rise to institutions and keeps them alive.  The principle or the structure of the institution is not the hierarchy but rather the charism which is at the root of all institutions and hierarchy (159).

So Charism becomes the “organizing principle” (155) of the church’s institutions, with an emphasis on the participation of the whole people of God, all of whom are given charismatic gifts.  The Spirit is made manifest in the Church through the diverse charisms, given for diverse services and functions, but all are oriented toward the good of the Church and working together for unity.  The role of leadership in the community, then, is to take “responsibility for harmony among the many and diverse charisms” (163).  The authorities in the church are there to ensure that there is freedom for charisms to flourish, and to allow the movement of the Spirit through the charisms to organize the Church’s life and witness.

However, Boff argues that leadership structures in the West have tended to be characterized “complete domination” in which the hierarchy “considers itself to be the only charism,” a situation in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit will indeed be perceived as a threat to those in leadership (157).  He arrives at this conclusion via another interesting facet of his work – the integration of theological and sociological reflection, specifically of the Marxist variety.

While faith and theology provide the ideals toward which the Church is striving, ecclesiological reflection, according to Boff, begins with the lived realities of ecclesial practice, then measures these practices against theological norms.  The resulting reflection provides direction for revised and theologically informed praxis (132).  Sociological analysis is therefore part of theological analysis, with theology providing the overall normative vision, but sociology providing the starting point for reflection and some guidance as to how the normative theological vision ought to be lived out. For example, Boff argues on a theological basis that the laity have an inalienable dignity and certain inalienable rights, but his account of how these rights should be exercised in the community has clearly been influenced by Marxist social analysis.  This is seen in the fact that he gives a significant place to the concept of “power” in his ecclesiology, as opposed to the traditional theological category of “authority.”  He calls for a better distribution of sacred power, and a redefinition of the roles of bishop and priest (10).  He criticizes the centralization of decision making in the Church as move which marginalizes the people (34).  He describes the processes of the CDF (which he would soon experience firsthand) as unjust and a violation of human rights (37-38).  Thus Boff will make statements such as “The logic of power is the desire for more power,” and argue that the concrete exercise of power in the Church “follows the logic of any human power structure” (53).

The touchstone of this Marxist analysis is the critique of the inequality in the means of production.  The religious-ecclesiastical or institutional realm of the church is part of the social order, and is conditioned by the prevailing means of production in that social order (110-111).  The Church’s own means of production (in relation to cultural/symbolic goods) manifests a structural inequality, with the hiearchy producing all the goods and the laity doing all the consuming (43).   This imbalance is in complete harmony with the social realm, but full of internal contradictions, because the basic ideals of these institutions call for shared means of production (113).  Ecclesiology must be worked out with attention to these inequalities.

This approach leads Boff to a specific normative conclusion about charismatic reform movements: they must be structural as well as spiritual.  Boff is able to see the base communities of Brazil as a form of ecclesiogenesis because they are a “new way of concretizing the mystery of salvation” (126) which gives rise to new lay ministries based on the integration and equality of charismatic gifts (128).   The examples of the violation of human rights in the Church with which Boff is concerned are not simply the result of individual actions, but result from a certain way of structuring the Church.  The men of the hierarchy are mostly men of good faith, but the structures in which they operate are authoritarian.  While the Church embraces the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, reform and conversion are typically limited to the personal and spiritual realm. In opposition to this tendency, Boff argues that the goal of charismatic reforming movements in the Church must be the recreation of the Church as an institution of power.  The church has mimicked the structures of the world, and what is needed is the conversion of the institutional Church (58).  Therefore, reform movements must embody an alternative structure, one that is more circular and fraternal. Boff believes that this alternative has emerged at particular moments in the church’s history, in various charismatic movements, evangelical revivals, and idealistic groups (156).

Boff’s synthesis of theology and social analysis is methodologically very interesting, but leans quite heavily on Marxist categories.  At times is not clear whether his view of charismatic movements in the church is driven by Marxist concerns or theological concerns.  I would prefer that theological concerns predominate. Still, Boff’s model provides a way of explaining the history of charismatic movements that has a lot of explanatory power. His ideas provide a plausible account of the history of charismatic movements and their often rocky relation to established structures, without de-spiritualizing the institutional church.  I think, however, his perspective could be aided by turning a similar critical sociological eye to the charismatic movements.  In his Marxist framework they are treated in an entirely positive light, and I would argue that this is an oversimplification.

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements Part 1: Charismatic Opposed to Institutional

The first in my typology of views on “charismatic movements” deals with a perspective I’m calling “charismatic opposed to institutional.”  This viewpoint basically sees the charismatic element of the church as the “true” or “original”church, and the institutions as a corrupting, stifling force that squeezes out the charismatic life.  According to this perspective, then, “charismatic movements” would represent the re-emergence of primitive, Pauline Christianity.

In scholarly circles this discussion begins with debate over the constitution of the earliest Christian communities.  Rudolph Söhm was responsible for bringing the discussion of charisms into modern scholarship (found in his Kirchenrecht, published in 1892).  Söhm was a lawyer, and the original reason for his investigation of primitive Christianity was occasioned by a dispute with fellow jurists regarding the status of civil law in Christian marriage ceremonies.  This set him on the path of researching the history of canon law, and the necessary corollary discipline of church history.  Söhm argued against the prevailing “voluntary association” consensus among protestant scholars in the 1880s, positing instead that the earliest Christians viewed their communities as drawn together and constituted by the charisms of the Spirit, meaning that they understood the Church as a spiritual entity which was beyond all human law. The contrast here is between the church constituted by the consent of the members in a democratic “free association” sense, and the church as constituted by the charismatic action of the Sprit.

According to Söhm, leadership and direction of the community was provided by charismatic leaders (preachers, teachers, and bishops), and was not formalized into offices.  In Söhm’s views, such formalization of charismatic authority into offices came later as a failure and a retreat from the original organization of the Church. Leonardo Boff characterizes Söhm’s view by saying “Faith in the Gospel gave way to faith in divine law” (Church, Charism and Power, 68).

Söhm’s interpretation of the early Church had a profound influence in the early twentieth century, though it was not blindly accepted.  Adolf von Harnack agreed that the primitive church was charismatic, but proposed that there had originally non-charismatic leadership as well, identifying the charismatic leaders with itinerant preachers and prophets who exercised a universal ministry, and the non-charismatic with the local presbyters, bishops, and deacons (primarily in The Constitution & Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries).  In the final analysis, Harnack followed the same line of thinking as Söhm in proposing that the non-charismatic leadership eventually overtook and excluded the charismatic leadership, thus pushing aside the originally charismatic element in the Church.

Hans von Campenhausen provided a variation on this thesis, by identifying the non-charismatic leadership with Jewish Christianity, and the charismatic leadership with the Pauline communities.  The two models were later merged, and the error in Campenhausen’s reading of primitive church history was the investment of the offices with sacred significance, a move which, in effect, led to the exclusion of charisms (Ecclesastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries).

For the most part, later 20th century scholarship has taken a more nuanced view of the relationship between the institutional and charismatic in the church (more on that in later posts).  But the idea remains common in the popular Christian imagination.   Of course, revivalist groups, and charismatic movements would often read early church history in this way.  Inevitably a new movement that does not fit well with established leadership structures will interpret those structures as a stifling form of opposition to the Spirit’s work.

The problem with this perspective, of course, is that no purely charismatic movement can exist for any period of time without developing stable institutional structures.  Once you set a time and place for a meeting, and decide who is on set up, who is leading the singing, etc., you have begun the process of institutionalization!  So, if this is true, what kind of a reading of church history does it provide?  The church’s history is one of continual decline, interrupted sporadically by spontaneous irruptions of real Christianity, which themselves inevitably degenerate into spiritless institutions.  The result is that much of Christian history, and the majority of Christians in the world at any given time, are written off as being part of a spiritually dead Church.

Are “institutional” structures completely devoid of the Spirit’s leading?  That cannot be, if a) we believe that Christ has promised to be with his Church to the end, and b) historical continuity of any kind involves institutional structures.  It is true that there often are tensions and struggles between charismatic movements and established structures, but setting up such a clear dichotomy between the two seems to oversimplify the situation. Therefore, conceiving the institutional aspect of the Church as fundamentally “opposed” to the charismatic is not satisfactory.

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

Christian Smith, Notre Dame sociologist and author of some significant books on youth in North America’s churches, uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deists” to describe the default religion of our time.  Christianity Today had an interview with Smith in their October issue, in which they discussed his new book on “emerging adulthood,” Souls in Transition.  He’s got some really interesting things to say about young adults and the Church. I wish the book had been published earlier, as I’d already finished up my young adult project for the SA when Souls in Transition hit the shelves.  For example, his typology of emerging adults might have got me thinking in different ways about how I might have summarized my interviews.  He breaks down the population of young adults as follows (found on p. 36 of the print edition on CT but not in the online article):

  • Committed traditionalists (15%)
  • Selective adherents (30%)
  • Spiritually open (15%)
  • Religiously indifferent (25%)
  • Religiously disconnected (5%)
  • Irreligious (10%)

Maybe in another post I’ll speculate as to how these categories play out among young adults in The Salvation Army.

Right now I’m interested in this idea of “moralistic therapeutic deists”, because I think it is a great description of the default religion of our day. While Smith’s research indicates that some young adults are questioning the moralistic therapeutic deist framework, it still remains the dominant form of religious practice:

With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.

It’s good that today’s young adults are questioning popular religion, but the majority still practice their religion within a moralistic therapeutic framework.  By “the de facto practiced religious faith” Smith means the “cultural Christianity” of North America, but we shouldn’t think that by this he means Christianity of “the culture” as opposed to Christianity found in the churches.  It’s the pop Christianity of both Church and culture – not found in all churches but certainly preached and practiced in many.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is the default framework through which Christians interpret their lives and their faith.

So what is “moralistic therapeutic deism”?  (These are my thoughts, not Smith’s; I’m trying explain his terminology in terms of what I see in the culture.)

Moralistic: religion is basically about being a good person.  This could be taken in a number of directions. For example, a moralist religion might envision God as rewarding “good Christians” for their good actions.  They might support the popular notion that people who are basically good are going to go to heaven.   This doesn’t mean that young adults believe in absolute moral standards.  They are more likely to think of morality in relative terms, as this recent Knights of Columbus poll of Catholic millenials shows (82% say morals are relative).  Yet somehow “being a good person” remains the foundation of religious practice, even while a plurality of competing moral visions are accepted. The problem with moralism is not that it supports a moral vision, but that it makes morality the foundation of religion, rather than the saving action of God in Christ.  Salvation includes transformation, and of course it includes moral transformation.  But our moral behaviour is the result of God’s action. God’s action does not come in response to our moral behaviour.  North American churches are full of moralism.

Therapeutic: religion takes on the form of pop psychology.  In other words, God is there to help me get through my day (see my reference to the personal assistant God in a previous post).  Or, God is there to help me “reach my potential,” and “become a better me.”   Religion as therapy is about personal fulfillment, and meeting “my needs.”   God is domesticated and placed “at our service” as we journey on the road to personal “success” – whether that be in business, family life, or (as above) becoming a good religious person.  This kind of therapeutic Christianity often takes the form of psychological strategies or practical “life skills” by which we can attempt to manage our personal lives.

[I do think salvation has a therapeutic dimension, but not in the contemporary psychological sense of therapy. Wesley’s soteriology is often described as “therapeutic” as opposed to forensic.  This means that he saw salvation as entailing a process of healing as well as a declaration of justification.  Salvation is not simply about being declared righteous in Christ, but about being conformed to his likeness and renewed in the image of God.  This includes the re-directing of our desires toward their intended godly ends.   The key difference here is that the “therapy” in this case is christologically determined, and not based on a program of “self-fulfillment.”  In fact, “self-fulilment” would be the opposite of the divine therapy that the Spirit works in conforming us to Christ’s likeness.  My daily “needs” are not necessarily right and good.  Since I am totally depraved, I don’t actually know what my “needs” are.  The things I think I “need” may in fact be deadly poison.  The gospel doesn’t meet my pre-conceived needs; the “medicine” it provides also tells me what my true sickness is.  God’s mercy never comes independently of his judgment.]

Deism: This is not the same as the deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, which saw God as an uninvoled creator, who got the ball rolling with creation and then just let the world take its mechanically determined course.  Moralistic therapeutic deism involves a generic concept of God, unattached to a particular religious tradition.   This God is benevolent and involved in creation, indeed he’s involved in the everyday ins and outs of our lives.  But he’s a bit abstract.  He’s the nice old guy in the sky. In other words, this deism is a far reach from the historic Christian proclamation of the particular God revealed in Biblical history.

I think we need to be constantly challenging this framework. Precisely because moralistic therapeutic deism is “the de facto practiced religious faith,” we need to hear again and again that it is not the historic Christian gospel.   People come to their faith with this basic framework already in place, and if it isn’t challenged it will remain in place.  Worse, if we tailor our preaching to moralistic therapeutic deism (which I think we often do, unwittingly), we perpetuate a vision of Christianity which is, in my view, foreign to the biblical message.

This is where I think sociological research like Smith’s can be of immense value.   Sociology is a descriptive rather than a normative discipline.  In other words sociology attempts to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. It tells us how people behave, attempting to summarize patterns and, at times, discern causes of particular patterns of behaviour.  The Church doesn’t take its direction from sociological trends, but from the authoritative witness of scripture.  However, in understanding these trends, we can understand where people are coming from when they encounter the Christian message (including Christians themselves).   If we know that moralistic therapeutic deism is the default religion of North Americans, and we know that it is contrary to basic aspects of the gospel, how can we not respond by challenging these default assumptions?

Eight Theses on Authority in the Church

I’ve been reflecting theologically on the problem of authority in the Church for a number of years now.  It is a notoriously difficult topic.  Disagreements over authority have been at the heart of many of the divisions in the Church since the Reformation, and questions of authority remain among the most difficult issues discussed in ecumenical dialogue.  

I became interested in the topic mostly because my own tradition (Salvation Army) has such an extremely hierarchical authority structure, and it seemed to me that its hierarchical structure was out of line with the Army’s otherwise egalitarian view of redeemed humanity.   For my master’s thesis I investigated the development of the SA’s governance, and found that it was supported by basically a utilitarian argument: there is no biblical model for church structure, therefore we can use whatever is most “effective,” and what could be more effective than organizing ourselves as an Army?    I would suggest that the argument no longer holds even on its own terms (that is, that the military structure is no longer “effective” in the way it may have been in the 1880s), and also that the presupposition on which it is built (that we are free to use whatever is most effective) is questionable at best.   If you want to know more about that I’ll be happy to send you my thesis.

The following theses are posted here as food for thought.  They certainly aren’t comprehensive, but I offer them as some basic principles to be kept in mind when thinking about questions of authority in the Church.   If you read between the lines you can see how my experiences with the Army’s structure are acting as an invisible foil for much of what I’m writing here.  However, I’ve tried to formuate these ideas into constructive propositions which should be applicable in any ecclesial context.

  1. Authority in the Church is, first and foremost, a theological issue.  As the people of God, we must always keep the Truine God in view as we think about our life together, whether we are addressing issues of faith or practice.  The theological question of authority must provide the normative specification for the practice of excercising authority, i.e., the ins and outs of how authority is exercised in the church.  We cannot bracket out theological questions in our discussion of authority, blindly adopting practices from the world of business or elsewhere, without measuring them against the character of God as the authority to which all other authorities must answer. 
  2. Jesus Christ is the head of the church and the ultimate authority to which every Christian and the church as a whole must answer.  We all answer to one Lord, who is the embodiment of truly human and truly divine authority.  Christ, as truly God and truly human, shows us the character of God and the character of our new humanity as it is intended to be.  His humanity is the standard towards which we strive. However, as we are all pilgrims moving towards the realization of this fully redeemed humanity, it must be absolutely maintained that Christ’s authority is unique.  Jesus is the one head of the church, no one can presume to encroach upon his authority. In the Church, his voice must be allowed to speak in a singular way, and all nations, cultures, ideologies, and persons (including Church leaders) must place themselves under this authority.
  3. The Scriptures contain the authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and as such must always be allowed to speak over and against human authorities in the Church. The Bible is the normative source of our knowledge of Christ, and the medium through which God has graciously chosen to preserve the record of his self-revealing acts in history.  As such, the Scriptures are the uniquely inspired standard against which all claims concerning Jesus Christ – and therefore all claims regarding authority in the Church – must be measured.  The place of Scripture, as the standard for Christian faith, must be maintained in any system of authority.  All human authorities in the church must be answerable to the unique witness of Scripture. 
  4. The structures of authority in the Church ought to reflect the character of the Christian life.  It is not enough that leaders themselves display lives of holiness and integrity.   The structures and processes of authority should also be marked off as different from the authority structures and processes of the world.   Authority structures are not “neutral” tools that can be used for either good or evil ends, depending on the persons who are using them.  The structures themselves should foster and reflect the new life of the Spirit that is ours through Christ.   To take an extreme example, a totalitarian structure demeans the dignity of the persons who are subject to its authorities, such that even a benign dictator in a totalitarian system participates in something which is a counter-witness to the gospel.  
  5. The Holy Spirit guides the whole community of believers in following Jesus Chist as Lord. The Spirit enlivens, guides, and empowers the church in every aspect of its existence.  The Spirit was sent forth from the Father to the whole people of God, so that his people might have fellowship with him, as they are united in fellowship with one another.  Through worship, prayer, and the reading of Scripture together, the people of God are taught by the Spirit.  This gives the Church a fundamentally egalitarian character, but it does not mean that individual believers can disregard the voice of others. It is not an individualistic egalitarianism, but a communal egalitarianism, in which each member is dependent upon the others.  Precisely because God speaks to all believers through the Spirit, we must be wary of ‘lone ranger’ discernments of the Spirit’s voice.  Through their common fellowship of the Spirit, believers are able to test and determine what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
  6. Human authorities in the Church are guided by that same Spirit. Those set in positions of authority in the church are guided by this same Spirit, who is given to the whole Church.  Leaders must never presume that they have special access to God’s voice.  As they are enabled by the Spirit to lead the people, they must remember that they are part of the assembly that gathers before God’s throne to hear him speak. They do have a status that sets them apart from this assembly.  This is not to say that there is no distinction whatsoever between members of the Church.  However, it must always be remembered that the distinctions are matters of function, not status.  Church leaders have specific roles to play in the life of the congregation, and not everyone can fill those roles.  But they do not have a higher status in relation to their brothers and sisters.
  7. Human authority the Church must always be open to reform. The above should establish that human authorities in the church must approach their task with an attitude of humility and a constant openness to reform.  As no leader can perfectly discern the voice of the Spirit, no leader can ever fulfil their role in isolation from the discernment and reception of the people.  Neither can any body of Christians perfectly discern and embody God’s will on this side of the eschaton.  There will always be need for reform in the Church, and authorities must bear that need in mind at all times, remaining open to challenge and critique.
  8. Human authority in the church is not an end in itself, but is ordered towards its goal – the mission of God.   If authority in the church is primarily a function and not a status, then authorities must not presume that their authority is an end in itself – that simply protecting and preserving their authority is God’s work.  Human authority in the Church is a means to an end, and the end is the furtherance of the mission of God.   This is not the same as saying we should use “any means necessary,” because the means themselves are part of the Church’s witness to the gospel.  Rather, in saying that authority in the Church is ordered toward the mission of God, we put authority in its proper place, among the people of God, serving the mission of God.  An authority which sets itself up as an end in itself can become idolatrous.

The longest church name in the history of the world

This is a church that has a storefront in our neighbourhood.  The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada.   Personally I like the acronym printed on the window below, the “St. Francis N.E.S.B.F.  Archdiocese of Canada.”

It makes you wonder about this history of this group.  How on earth did they come up with that name?   At first glance it seems like they’d have something to appeal to just about every kind of Christian.

  • St. Francis – well he appeals to everyone, but especially to Catholics
  • National – that appeals to established Church types
  • Evangelical – obviously appeals to…
  • Spiritual – maybe the charismatics?
  • Baptist – of course…

Some of these things don’t normally go together, notably “St. Francis” and “Baptist,” which makes it all the more interesting.   I found a website for the church, which explains that they are a group from Trinidad.  They seem charismatic – they are also called “shouters,” and the have three hour worship services – and they mix elements of Protestant Christianity with African religion.   It’s not clear from their site exactly what that looks like.   They themselves aren’t exactly clear on their origins.

What is interesting to me about this group is that they are charismatic, but they don’t seem to downplay the significance of ritual and symbol in their faith.   Actually their website lists candles, bells, swords, flags, uniforms and a whole host of other items as significant in their worship.    Most charismatically-oriented protestants (we could expand that to include most evangelicals) are wary of any kind of ritual.  They’ve got some obviously “catholic” elements in their worship (one page on the website has prayers of the saints), but they speak in tongues and have street preaching missions.

Then again, if you know the story of St. Francis and the mendicant friars, you’ll know that these things are not so distinct from one another after all.  Francis was the ultimate charismatic.  He was also completely committed to the Catholic faith, and to the task of preaching the gospel.   Maybe the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F people are on to something.  It’s the history of division in the Church since the Reformation that has caused us to see the various terms that go into their name as being at odds with one another.   The names that we have given to our denominations are there precisely to distinguish us from the other denominations and traditions.   Our particular denominational identities then become filters for the discernment of what is good, acceptable, and true.   For example, in my tradition, if someone says something is “Wesleyan” that automatically makes it acceptable, but if it’s “Calvinist” people assume it is wrong, without even really thinking about it.  Although strong denominational identities are fading fast, most of us have been formed in communities that make these kind of distinctions all the time. “St. Francis” and “Evanglical” seem an odd pairing to a contemporary evangelical, because St. Francis is seen as a Catholic figure. But actually Francis lived during what is rightly called an “evangelical revival,” a real flowering of the gospel, which included radical forms of discipleship, self-denial, and evangelistic preaching missions.   I really don’t know much about the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F., so I wouldn’t want to hold them up as a model of anythying, but maybe the fact that they seem to have developed in obscurity has allowed them to hold these things together without worrying that they were crossing traditional boundaries.

The purpose of theological education

There’s a nice post from Ben Myers over at Faith & Theology on the purpose of theological education, which includes the following:

“What the church really needs is not cleverer or more relevant or more professional ministers, but women and men who know how to pray and how to bear witness. Nothing could be simpler; nothing more demanding. For true prayer and witness spring only from a life that has been formed in the way of discipleship – the way of Jesus Christ.”

What a great way of summing up the purpose of theological education.  But most people, including many who have had theological education, don’t see it this way.  Those training for ministry often struggle to integrate academic study into their faith.   I remember friends talking about this in seminary.  I’ve seen it in students that I’ve TAed for.  I’ve also heard some cadets from CFOT talk along the same lines.   Why is it that students have a hard time making the connections between the theological disciplines and the life of faith?   I think it is partly due to the fact that popular Christian culture is so ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  On the other hand, theological scholarship has gone the way of increasing specialization (along with other academic disciplines), to the point that many theologians spend most of their time communicating with a small circle of friends who are interested in the same obscure topics.  Philip Clayton recently posted a video on his website criticizing academic theology (including his own work) for this very reason. He may exaggerate a bit but the main point is valid. The kinds of discourse we encounter in our local church are so far removed from academic discourse that it becomes hard reconcile the two, so a lot people veer off in one direction or the other.   

How do we get beyond this?  Obviously there are people we could look to, say scholars who write for general audiences, like NT Wright, or pastors who put great effort into upholding theological integrity in their ministry, like David Fitch.    Students could probably put a little more effort into trying to integrate scholarship and faith, and teachers could certainly make an effort to show how theological questions are related to situations in the life of the Church.  I also think it reinforces the need for doing historical theology, and teaching doctrine from a historical perspective.   Why?  Because most of the great theologians in the history of the Church were pastors and leaders, and they wrote in response to real problems that were arising in the life of the Church as it struggled to live out its vocation in the world.  

Any other thoughts?  As an academic whose deeply concerned about strengthening the connections between scholarship and everyday Christian life, I’m open to suggestions.