Sunday, June 26, 2011


This summer, I've decided to regularly attend my family's non-denominational Church so that I can worship with my parents, Grandmother, and nephew every Sunday morning. Given my love for high-liturgical services (despite all my issues with it), I have struggled to find patience with the cliche worship style. The homilies, however well-intentioned, are little more than Oprah's self-help messages baptized in a few Scriptures. I often leave these services feeling rather alienated. Beyond the fact that so many of the lyrics in these modern worship songs are theologically impoverished at best, I find it dishonest to say that I will "give all" to Christ. Isn't that the point, that I can't do such things? Isn't His faithfulness to me, even when I am faithless and seek to escape the friendship He has established with me in Christ, the very essence of the Gospel?

Today, I found it difficult to be silent. So I began to express my disagreements about this particular Church with my Dad. I started out by saying that my intention isn't to seem like an elitist, or that I have it all figured out. I truly am learning just like everyone else - this much is certain.

But as I was talking, I honestly could not believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. There is no potentiality, it is all actualized in Christ. There is no ladder for Christians to climb, it is simply an act of grace that we continually realize who we are in Christ by the power of the Spirit. Sanctification isn't necessarily a matter of "getting more holy" but rather a deeper awareness of one's own inability and helplessness. This is what grace means. To me, this is the Gospel. That before the foundation of the world, the Father chose to reconcile humanity onto Himself in Christ. Even more, we have no where to stand, but continually depend upon the grace of God as we bear witness to this truth not only to each other but to the world. A theologia crucis - a theology that believes God is most revealed in the suffering and humility of the cross - does not mean recovering from and escaping doubt, weakness, and disbelief. Rather, it recognizes that God is still faithful to us in Christ as we encounter all of this suffering.

I began to wonder how all of this is consistent with my other theological sympathies. The radical posture of humility and dependence I just outlined which I articulated to my Dad today doesn't seem to be consistent with other aspects of my theology (ecclesiology for starters). My Dad's questions by way of response made me realize that my position is very unstable. Again, it offers no where to stand. Ironically, this is what makes me so attracted yet so uncomfortable with Barth's methodology (this became all the more clear at the Karl Barth conference last week). His understanding of the object of faith in Jesus Christ determines his radically unstable methodology which continually seeks to "start at the beginning" when bearing witness to the Gospel.

Is this too - the instability - what it means to faithfully witness to a theologia crucis?

While I won't end up long-term at this type of non-denominational Church, the very occasions that give rise to these realizations and questions are uncomfortable. I pray for the courage and willingness to live out whatever conclusions might surface even if that means a radical ecclesial reorientation.


W. Travis McMaken said...

"I began to wonder how all of this is consistent with my other theological sympathies. The radical posture of humility and dependence I just outlined which I articulated to my Dad today doesn't seem to be consistent with other aspects of my theology (ecclesiology for starters)."

Bingo. Now you're starting to think like a systematic theologian.

nick said...

I can sympathize. Since moving to Baton Rouge, we've been searching for a Church home. The process is almost as bad as trying to find a needle in a hay stack (I hate it).

It seems like the more you develop a working systematic theology, the greater the desire to encounter the consistency of that system throughout the entire church experience becomes. And when you see or encounter things that don't strictly match up to what you hope, you're left watching people raise there hands and sing chintzy lyrics that make your eyes roll up into the back of your head.

So, in that respect, I can empathize with your frustrations.

nick said...

Although I should say that we have found a place we really like that has both of those aforementioned quirks which annoy me, but the people are wonderful. And I can stomach that to be around honest and faithful people pursuing the Lord in the only way they know how...but that still won't stop me from slipping them new reading material under the pew, if ya know what I mean. :)

Jordan H said...

Kait, I have been wrestling with this tension a great deal, particularly (like you) in the area of ecclesiology. I am beginning to think that Bonhoeffer has a tremendous amount to offer in this area, especially his earlier works (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being). Ever indebted to Barth's dialectical methodology, Bonhoeffer places greater emphasis on the relationship between ecclesiology and revelation... On a break at work now, so can't go into it in full, but you should definitely give his ecclesiology a look!

Matt Frost said...

a) I second Travis. Developing your own theology is like rebuilding a brick wall from the middle. You find a reasonably solid point you can rely on, and then you work up from there. And when you find that you should have started lower, you go back. It's a humbling process.

b) Don't lose heart; you're not alone. And though it may not feel like it, it's a healthy place to be.

What you've found is one of the main troubles of apophatic theology/the via negativa. But it's also its most useful property. You've found a reasonably solid reliance on Christ, and started tapping on other bricks around there, and found some spots that aren't as stable as they should be -- whether the bricks are bad, or their mortar is, or their placement is simply not ideal. It's a bit of 1 Cor 3. Constructive theology is simply the task of building a better wall for the times and circumstances, with the tools at hand.

Matt Frost said...

c) I'll second Jordan -- Barth and Bonhoeffer alike were dealing in contexts with both a strong institutional church structure, and a strong environment of Freikirchen. The interplay lends some useful sense to the discussion of Gemeinde/communio as a key element of church community in reliance upon Christ.

Jordan H said...

"The church is a piece of the world; forsaken, godless, beneath the curse: vain, evil world-- and that to the highest degree because she misuses the name of God, because in her God is made into a plaything, an idol. Indeed, she is an eternally forsaken and anti-Christian piece of the world in that she proudly removes herself from her solidarity with the evil world and lauds her own self. And yet: the church is a piece of qualified world, qualified through God's revealing, gracious Word, which she is obliged to deliver to the world which God has occupied and which he will never more set free. The church is the presence of God in the world. Really in the world, really the presence of God" (Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, 286).

The first part of the quote, of course, betrays the influence of dialectical theology on Bonhoeffer's ecclesiology. God stands in loving freedom over-and-against His Church. The moment the Church overlooks her dependence upon the gracious self-giving of God, the moment she denies her solidarity with the evil and sinful world, the Church commits herself to a most prideful idolatry. The Church is always only the unmeritorious recipient of God's presence.

AND YET... the Church nevertheless participates in God's action in and for the world. For Bonhoeffer, the Church is the community of revelation, Christ existing as Church-community. Bonhoeffer therefore denies Barth's assertion (particularly in the Epistle to the Romans) that revelation remains utterly non-objectifiable. Thus, for Bonhoeffer, "the whole situation impels one to ask whether a formalistic understanding of God's freedom in contingent revelation, conceived wholly in terms of the act, is really the proper groundwork for theology. In revelation it is a question less of God's freedom on the far side of us, i.e. his eternal isolation and aseity, than of his forth-proceeding, his given Word, his bond in which he has bound himself, of his freedom as it is most strongly attested in his having freely bound himself to historical man, having placed himself at man's disposal. God is not free of man but for man. Christ is the Word of his freedom. God is there, which is to say: not in eternal non-objectivity but 'haveable', graspable in his Word within the Church" (Act and Being, 90-91).

Whether you agree with his results or not, Bonhoeffer is attempting to protect both the freedom of God in His self-revealtion, and God's committed presence to the Church through the Word and sacraments.

Kait Dugan said...

Here goes:

Travis - I appreciated the "now." What kind of thinking was I doing before this post?

Nick - I can relate to that narrative more than you could possibly know. Taylor was more about my ecclesial journey than college itself in some ways! I knew little about formal theology (nothing as such is really offered at TU), but was obsessed with the Church. It took me all the way East. Unfortunately and fortunately, I'm still questioning. Hang in there.

Jordan - Bonhoeffer offers nothing but a severe dose of humility throughout almost all of his writings. I still need to read Act and Being. I'm wondering though if the type of dialectic that Bonhoeffer describes is compatible with Anglicanism.

Matt - Thanks for the encouraging words. Building one's own theological pyramid is both joyful and one continual existential crisis to a certain extent. It is both a privilege that we can even have the occasion to order our thoughts after the Gospel and also a serious responsibility requiring an incredible amount of suffering. I'm trying to figure out what the first building block is, to be honest. Most people think that the analogia entis is overemphasized and isn't where the conversation really starts or ends. I remain unconvinced.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I was using now in an event-oriented way: "Now [i.e., in the event of this moment!] you're starting to think like a systematic theologian."

Also, there is more than one way to be a useful theologian.

Jordan H said...

"I'm wondering though if the type of dialectic that Bonhoeffer describes is compatible with Anglicanism."

Could you possibly elaborate?

Jordan H said...

Aaaaaaaaaand I've decided to vomit a post on the topic:

Matt Frost said...

For myself, I realized that anyplace I started was going to be in medias res. Grab hold of the pieces that grab you and be perfectly valid. :) There's no reason not to follow your existential crises/movements; it's all interdependent anyways, and this is what makes your theological development *yours*.

Anonymous said...


Sorry that I am only just reading this post. I have been busy as you know well.

I had similar "realizations" when I left the seminary community and went to my dad's church. My dad is Southern Baptist and .... yeah. I became habitually frustrated with the sermons. It was typically a piece of Scripture read, then there would inevitably be the virtuous, moral lessons which follow in 3-point manner. There were times that I felt I was being too critical, then there were times I wanted to get up and walk out noticeably and hope others would follow because I felt the Gospel was being replaced by conservative morals and politics.

Eventually, I found that I was holding rather firmly to an ideal of church which cannot really be found this side of the new heavens and new earth. Also, I found within myself an unhealthy frustration with church growing and strangely enough, perpetuated by my time in seminary. I have found the best way to deal with issues and problems with these sorts of things is to graciously converse with others about things after time spent in prayer, and to suggest that others support the pastor, though, ask the pastor for clarification on things that seemed unclear or a bit of a stretch. I could not deal with my being a cause for divisiveness in a church and a potential division, so I believe that it is good to deal with these things individually in a small setting while also being prayerful about your own theology and reasons for confronting all along.

It was a good trial for me, looking back, being a generally Reformed Christian attending a vastly Arminian and dispensational church. It is good for Christians to disagree with one another if at the end of the day we can affirm the essentials of the faith and still love one another and God.

This post resonated with my experience last summer. Thanks for the post and for being willing to put yourself under the scalpel of both the Spirit and Scripture while maintaining a sort of organic theology.

grace and peace, Matt G

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