Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed is in the middle of a provocative discussion on the fuller message of the “Kingdom Gospel” found by reading the Bible as Story over and against the more popular, privatized gospel boiled down to a few abstract propositional truths pertaining to individual salvation. McKnight pushes us to a larger, more corporate view of the gospel as the creation of a new community of redeemed peoples united in Christ and sent out into the world to be the corporate manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. The discussion reminded me of an essay I wrote years ago on the “The Church as God’s New Language” based on the ecclesiological writings of Stanley Hauerwas. If you have a moment, grab a cold drink or cup of coffee and settle in for a longer, more scholarly essay from the Daily Illumination seminary archives.
The Church as God’s New Language
Stanley Hauerwas and an Ecclesiology of Embodied Story
by Jeremy Berg (2005)“Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you.” (2 Corinthians 3:2 MSG)
*NOTE: Unfortunately footnotes did not transfer to this blog post. Most unreferenced block quotes are from Hauerwas’ various works. My apologies.
Introduction & Thesis
Stanley Hauerwas, reflecting on the birth of the church and its purpose, claims that “at Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words.” It is a community shaped and formed by the memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The following essay explores this image of the church as God’s new language in and for the world. I will explore aspects of Hauerwas’ ecclesiology more fully and examine them in light of the ecclesial teachings of the apostles and early church fathers. I will argue that the church gradually shifted away from embodying God’s message to the world to a community who instead possessed a particular message for the world. In other words, the church as an embodied sacrament began with an incarnational model and as soon became an institution administering the sacraments with a more confessional and proclamational model.
Issues relevant to ministry and spiritual formation that arise in this study include (1) the question of what type of evangelistic approach should the church have in today’s post-Christian world and (2) the issue of whether Christian ethics should focus more on right acting (behavior) or right being (character). Let us begin by exploring in Hauerwas’ ecclesiological contributions.
The Ecclesiological Contribution Of Stanley Hauerwas
Hauerwas’ view of the church as God’s new language is a ripe metaphor that speaks powerfully of the role the church ought to play in and for the world today. In speaking of the moral influence the church ought to have on the surrounding world, Hauerwas draws the bold conclusion that “the church does not have a social ethic but is a social ethic, then, insofar as it is a community that can clearly be distinguished from the world.”
Inherent in these claims is a thorough commitment to a virtue ethic whereby one’s moral actions are tied to one’s moral character: “An ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an agent’s being is prior to his doing.” Also rooted in this image of the church is the indisputable fact that the church’s mode of being in and for the world, it’s unique quality of life or sanctified presence, speaks just as loudly–and often louder–than words.
In fact, for Hauerwas, the community’s life together shaped around the memory of Jesus is its very word or message to the world. The church, as a peaceable and unified community, stands as a radical alternative to a divided and hostile world. The church’s unity and peace comes from their common commitment to a shared history (or story) that is caught up in and shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and is remembered in concrete, tangible ways through the celebration of the sacraments:
It is through Baptism and Eucharist that our lives are engrafted onto the life of the one that makes our unity possible. Through this telling and enactment we, like Israel, become peculiarly a people who live by our remembering the history of God’s redemption of the world.
Baptism and the eucharist stand as crucial gestures which are meant to shape us rightly to hear as well as enact the story. Through baptism and eucharist we are initiated into God’s life by our becoming part of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. These are essential gestures of the church; we cannot be the church without them.
As the church is shaped by these sacraments, it becomes a sacrament itself, making God’s gracious act of New Creation visible to a broken world.
Just as we believe that the body and blood of Christ is powerfully present in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, so also “in the sacrament of Christian ethics, we experience the real history, for the ethic is the element of the kingdom of God coming into the material of our history. Christian praxis—in its suffering, struggle, and hope—celebrates and completes then the presence of God in history.”
By claiming that Christians can experience “the real history” together as they draw life from the presence of God’s future kingdom, Moltmann indicates that there is another history (or story) competing with God’s new reality.
Hauerwas also sees all of history falling under two competing stories. The first, the Babel story, is the story of a disintegrated world, divided by race, language, and agenda, constituted by conflict and war, and selfish gain through power and coercion at the expense of others. The second, the story of Pentecost, is God’s answer to the problem of Babel and his great act of new creation:
At Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words. It is instead a community whose memory of its Savior creates the miracle of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity…We call this new creation, church… We really do have an alternative to Babel, to fear of one another, and finally then to war. Even more happily it means that insofar as we are the church, we do not just have an alternative, we are the alternative. We do not have a story to tell but in the telling we are the story being told.
The primary social responsibility of the church then is to embody the reality of God’s new creation and to invite those who are living in the Babel story to come and join this new way of being in and for the world—the way of peaceful unity.
Is this understanding of the church as a radical alternative, as a distinct manifestation of a different type of community, a biblical notion? And if it is, has the church through the ages adopted this understanding? Let us be begin with a brief survey of the biblical witness and then glance at the practice of the early church.
A cursory glance at the Old and New Testaments supports the view of God’s people as a distinct, called-out community people whose otherworldly mode of life loudly proclaims and embodies the story of God’s redemptive purpose for the world.
When God called Abraham and promised to make him a great nation, he and his descendents were to be the instrument through which God would bless all the peoples of the earth (Gen 12:2-3; 17:4, 16; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:4; 28:14). All nations were to come to a knowledge of the one true and living God as they observed the people of God living in relationship with Him and obedience to His decrees. As Moses says,
Observe [God’s decrees and laws] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him (Deut 4:5-7)?
Note that the primary posture of the missionary calling of Israel in the OT was not one of sending out individual missionaries to teach propositional truths about God, but rather a corporate calling to be a certain kind of people, or community, living a certain quality of life in plain view of the on-looking nations. They are to be “a holy people”—a unique, sanctified presence among the nations, embodying God’s new creation in their corporate fellowship and speaking God’s new language as they display their unique lifestyle to the nations still living under the dehumanizing effects of Babel.
To the world living under the dark shadow of Babel, Isaiah brings the good news that would later be fulfilled at Pentecost:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn (Isaiah 60:1-3).
Again, the social responsibility and missionary activity of Israel is one of corporately reflecting “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:6) outwards onto the on-looking peoples, in order that they might see and come toward the light that characterizes the community life of the covenant people. The ‘salvation’ that God desires to lavish upon all peoples does not come, it would seem thus far, primarily through the proclamation of truth or the acquisition of a ‘saving knowledge’ of God (e.g., professing some proto-Nicene creed). Rather, this ‘salvation’ is accessed through incorporation into the covenant community of God and experienced as one begins to live a new quality of life—a truly human life—in relationship with the God of peace and unity.
In the New Testament, the call of the church to be a counter-cultural community whose life together bears witness to a different reality, a quality of life shaped by a particular story—the story of Pentecost—is made explicit in many different ways. The church (ekklesia—“the called-out ones”) is exhorted to live and act in ways that preach the message of God’s new creation to the world. Paul claims that “[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purposes which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph 3:10-11). This message is reinforced everywhere in the NT. The following list will suffice:
You are the light of the world… Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life…(Phil 2:14-16).
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders (1 Thes 4:11-12).
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light… Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Pet 2:9-12).
This short sample of passages begins to show the strong ethical responsibility of the church to proclaim God’s new creation by means of becoming an alternative social ethic and radically different quality of living in and for the world. The primary distinguishing characteristic of the church against the world is its oneness of love and purpose.
John captures this calling of the church to share in the mutual interrelations of the Trinitarian life in his prayer of Jesus: “I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).
Finally, Paul even captures the idea of the church being the message over and against the idea of the church as the privileged guardians and communicators of a message. As Paul defends the fruit of his ministry, he points to the creation of a people whose lives are a letter written by Christ through the Spirit for the entire world to read:
You yourselves are all the endorsement we need. Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it—not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives–and we publish it. We couldn’t be more sure of ourselves in this—that you, written by Christ himself for God, are our letter of recommendation. (2 Cor 3:2-4 MSG)
Was this vision of the church as God’s new language—a language communicated through a radically different mode of life together—shared by the Christian communities of the post-apostolic era and beyond?
The Early Church Witness
One of the earliest post-biblical witnesses to this tradition of embodying the word of the gospel is the great bishop and martyr, Ignatius of Antioch. As persecution intensified, the martyrs of the faith saw their lives as living and, if necessary, dying testimonies to a greater reality. They literally discovered what it meant to “share in his [Christ’s] sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life” (Phil 3:10-11). These trials became a purifying fire, separating the most faithful and fearless disciples from the less committed, mere confessors. Ignatius saw his impending martyrdom as a most powerful means of embodying the “word of God.” He feared that the Christians in Rome might interfere to save him and foil his witness: “For if you remain silent and leave me alone, I will be a word of God, but if you love my flesh (i.e. try to keep me alive), then I will again be a mere voice” (Romans 2). Those who fail to practice what they preach are merely unintelligible voices in a crowd. Those who incarnate their message, on the other hand, make their message abundantly clear and infinitely more effective
Ignatius desired to truly be a Christian and was concerned with empty words not backed up by actions worthy of Christ: “It is right, therefore, that we not just be called Christians, but that we actually be Christians” (Magnesians 4). Therefore, “pray that I will have the strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, that I might not merely be called a Christian, but actually prove to be one (Romans 3). In fact, if one’s actions were not consistent with one’s words, then it would be better if they remained silent. Authenticity is essential for effective Christian witness: “It is better to be silent and be real, than to talk and not be real. It is good to teach, if one does what one says” (Ephesians 15). The Second Letter of Clement warns against the detrimental effect of empty words in evangelism:
For when the pagans hear from our mouths the oracles of God, they marvel at their beauty and greatness. But when they discover that our actions are not worthy of the words we speak, they turn from wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is a myth and a delusion (2 Clement 13).
Paul understood that God’s new language—the ‘church as embodied metaphor’ of God’s new way of being human—could not be communicated with mere words. Rather, the new humanity achieved at Pentecost could be grasped only as the power of God and his Spirit infused a particular people with the transforming presence of the kingdom life.
For the kingdom of the God depends not on talk but on power (1 Cor 4:20). When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1,4-5).
Perhaps the best witness to the early post-apostolic church achieving this goal of embodying in its community life the reality of God’s new order, his new Pentecost way of life, is the snapshot given to us in the Epistle to Diognetus (ca. A.D. 150). In this apologetic treatise written to outsiders, the anonymous author attempts to answer questions pertaining to “the nature of the heartfelt love [Christians] have for one another; and why has this new race of men or way of life come into the world we live in now and not before” (Diognetus 1)? He goes on to describe that while Christians are in many respects ordinary citizens, they nevertheless “display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life”:
They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum up all in one word — what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world (Diognetus 5).
We see here that the church living by the Spirit of Pentecost is a church whose message to the world is not a mere sermon, a creedal statement or list of prepositional truths; rather the gospel is communicated via the “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life” shared by this “new race of men” called Christians. When did the ecclesiological posture of the church change from this incarnated social ethic or embodied language model to a more creedal, proclamation-oriented institution?
The Ecclesiological Shift
Factors that led to the movement away from this church model are many and varied. I briefly offer four.
Heresy, Canon and Creeds. With the arise of heretical streams in the young Christian communities, the unity of heart and mind shared by believers, rooted in the common memory of Jesus’ life, was soon threatened. The early leaders of the church were forced to draw more specific theological boundaries around their common faith. The gradual recognition of the authoritative writings (canonization) and the formulation of creeds at the early church councils began to turn the church’s attention away from right behavior to a growing preoccupation with right beliefs or doctrine.
The Constantinian Legacy of the Church. It would be hard to overestimate the radical impact the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) had on changing the posture of the church in relation to the world. In a very short time, the church went from being the despised and persecuted minority in the Roman Empire to being the official religion. Much writing has been focused on the negative long-term consequences this historical development has had on the faithful witness of the church in the world.
For our purposes, we can simply note that the church’s task of bringing an alternative to Babel, the task of speaking God’s new language by cultivating a radically counter-cultural community ethic formed around the teachings of Jesus, was quickly lost as the church tended to accommodate itself with the language and ethos of Roman Imperialism. More than just losing its ‘otherness’, the church quickly went from being a Spirit-led colony of people on the move, to becoming an official institution. The church’s character was becoming less defined by its eucharistic table fellowship and baptized community (its sacramental presence), and more defined by its internal structure, its hierarchy of leadership, its propagation of doctrine and its privilege as guardian of the sacraments necessary for salvation.
The Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation solidified the ecclesiological shift towards a proclamation-oriented model of church. Luther’s sola scriptura placed the preaching of the Word as the top priority of the church. The preacher’s pulpit replaced the sacramental altar; and while a week never went by without a sermon, fellowship around the eucharistic table began to be celebrated less frequently (i.e., the typical Protestant practice of monthly communion). While virtuous living was never intentionally ignored, Luther’s strong program of “justification by faith alone” (i.e. apart from good works) did place greater emphasis on getting the right beliefs.
The Enlightenment Influence. Since the Enlightenment, the modern church has continued to be dominated by a rationalistic approach to faith. The sacramental community of old that was defined by its remembrance of Jesus’ life through its celebration of the sacraments and shaped by its special place in God’s unfolding redemptive story, has become trapped in a sterile enterprise of delineating more and more abstract, propositional truths about God, Christ and his church. All the while, the Spirit-empowered colony of believers has lost sight of its social task of manifesting God’s New Creation to the world through its embodied language of love and grace. To conclude, I will draw out the implications of this study of ecclesiology in the areas of ministry and spirituality.
Implications for Evangelism
The church, like the rest of the world, is experiencing the gradual shift into the postmodern age. Because new wine requires new skins, the new spirit of postmodernity requires that the church adjust and rethink its approach to evangelism.
The days of the soapbox are long expired and the impersonal distribution of Gospel tracts onto car windshields has lost its effect. A lost and despairing world is growing frustrated with bumper sticker Christians and Bible banging preachers. People are hungry—though not primarily for answers to theological questions. They are hungry for life! Not the impersonal, individualized, fast-paced, progress-oriented, no rest, shallow life that characterizes the American Dream. People are hungry for the life of Pentecost characterized by harmonious fellowship with others of like-mind and spirit, sharing grace and love, forgiving as we are forgiven, and finding rest from the ruthless, dog-eat-dog world of Babel. The church can capitalize on this hunger by dedicating itself to becoming this type of community—a contagious community capable of drawing others into its common life.
The Church of the 21st century must shed itself of its modern, Enlightenment trappings that are so deeply engrained into its ethos if it is to succeed in the task of reaching the postmodern world with the gospel of Christ. Again, this gospel is not merely communicated with words, but rather the church must become God’s new language and let our lives speak tenderly to a tired and broken world. F. LeRon Shults calls this type of life “Being in Eucharistic Community.” Such a community
shares grace by welcoming others into a new way of being, a new place and time that is opened up by the divine promise. Christian koinonia is a being-filled with the Spirit in graceful, joyful, and thankful community (Ephesians 5:4,20), and inviting fellowship that calls others to become “sharers in the promise” (3:6), so that they too may be liberated from ontological anxiety.
The task of evangelizing the postmodern world requires transforming ecclesiology back to its sacramental form, so that it can serve again as “God’s gesture on behalf of the world to create a space and time in which we might have a foretaste of the Kingdom.”
Implications for Spiritual Formation
The incarnational/embodied language/sacramental model of church we have been exploring obviously emphasizes right acting over right beliefs. This social-ethical focus of this church model intensifies this concern for Christ-like living. However, I should like to conclude by emphasizing that all of this talk of right behavior must be rooted in right being. I mentioned Hauerwas’ commitment to virtue ethics earlier and it seems only logical that good trees will more naturally bear good fruit than bad trees. All of this to say that as we move towards cultivating communities capable of embodying the gospel, we should always begin by recognizing the Spirit’s essential role in transforming character. There is a temptation to leave the Spirit behind and ‘go it alone’. Yet, it is the Spirit of Christ who “produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control… The Spirit has given us life, he must also control our lives” (Gal 5:22-24).
While the Spirit is the empowering presence in the process of character building, the grace-filled and forgiving community of believers is the necessary context for “growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.” Those burdened and heavy-laden from the modern spirit of self-sufficiency and independence, can find rest for their souls in supportive and edifying community. The messy task of becoming a Spirit-led community must be pursued in the context of safe and secure relationships, where “we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God” ( 2 Cor 1:4).
In sum, I suggest that an incarnational/sacramental model of church will demand significant spiritual growth in terms of cultivating Christian virtues. Individuals must approach this task within the eucharistic community and through the power of the Spirit. The temptations to resist are (1) forsaking the Spirit and relying on one’s own human will-power and (2) isolating oneself from others and individualizing the social-ethical task.
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