The church of tomorrow

Pope Benedict XVI in Luanda, Angola

Joseph Ratzinger:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.

[Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 116]

Yes. This is perfectly expressed. Ratzinger published this book, Glaub und Zukunft, in 1970! For many at this time, the hegemony of Christianity would continue into the long future. Sure, there was the sexual revolution and the student riots and much else, but the only thing necessary was an updating of the church. Aggiornamento. This was confidently mapped by Hans Küng at Tübingen, Richard McBrien at Notre Dame, and other darlings of the Western intelligentsia and privileged elites.

Of course, the aggiornamento theologians are still waiting for their update. That’s not likely to happen when Africa has millions of more practicing Catholics than Europe. The future of Christianity is not being hammered out in the Parisian cafés but, rather, in the four metropolitan sees of Uganda or in the archdiocese of Kinshasa, Congo, which is vastly more important than Paris.

As for the the global North, Ratzinger is right. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” Yep. “She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity.” It is not beyond the realm of possibility to see the cathedrals of Our Lady in Reims or Paris suffer the same fate as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. “As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges.” Preach it, brother Ratzinger! “In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society.” Welcome to the free church!


Cardinal Ratzinger
Cardinal Ratzinger


Image above: Pope Benedict XVI greeting Catholics during his visit to Luanda, Angola on March 21, 2009. (source)



  1. “In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society.”

    Credo-baptism, anyone?

    • Ha, indeed — if we enter a scenario where European secularists finally dissolve their nominal ties to the Church, then the mission field will involve unbaptized converts. Ergo, credo-baptism becomes normative again in Europe.

    • I was reading something from the then Cardinal Ratzinger today that reminded me of your comment on Credo-baptism. Clearly this post had an effect since I’m still thinking about it. Anyway, this is what Ratzinger said in God and the World: “”The question of what it means to say that baptism is necessary for salvation has become ever more hotly debated in modern times. The Second Vatican Council said on this point that men who are seeking for God and who are inwardly striving toward that which constitutes baptism will also receive salvation. That is to say that a seeking after God already represents an inward participation in baptism, in the Church, in Christ. To that extent, the question concerning the necessity of baptism for salvation seems to have been answered, but the question about children who could not be baptized because they were aborted then presses upon us that much more urgently[…] Earlier ages had devised a teaching that seems to me rather unenlightened. They said that baptism endows us, by means of sanctifying grace, with the capacity to gaze upon God. Now, certainly, the state of original sin, from which we are freed by baptism, consists in a lack of sanctifying grace. Children who die in this way are indeed without any personal sin, so they cannot be sent to hell, but, on the other hand, they lack sanctifying grace and thus the potential for beholding God that this bestows. They will simply enjoy a state of natural blessedness, in which they will be happy. This state people called limbo […] In the course of our century, that has gradually come to seem problematic to us. This was one way in which people sought to justify the necessity of baptizing infants as early as possible, but the solution is itself questionable. Finally, the Pope made a decisive turn in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, a change already anticipated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when he expressed the simple hope that God is powerful enough to draw to himself all those who were unable to receive the sacrament.”

      Long passage but it seems to me that Ratzinger is offering a more nuanced view of baptism than the Medieval/Counter-Reformation view here. I am aware that there has been a lot of interest in the Eastern perspective that prefers ancestral to original sin. It seems to me that baptism may be undergoing a development that none of us are aware of. Ratzinger seems to have an aerial view of Christian history. Definitely needed today. If Catholicism (or any other Christian tradition for that matter) becomes more of a voluntary organization, baptism may indeed look more and more like the practice of baptism in Augustine’s time.

      • Thanks, Fariba, that’s a great passage from Ratzinger, which I have not read before.

        That is to say that a seeking after God already represents an inward participation in baptism, in the Church, in Christ.

        This is indeed a very important development in Catholic dogmatics, which traces its lineage to Catholic missionaries in the post-Reformation period — at least, that is what I remember reading from Francis Sullivan, S.J.

        The question about limbo is especially interesting to me. It seems that Rome is rather fortunate to have never defined (dogmatically) the doctrine of limbo, which is why it has pretty-much disappeared — even among conservative Catholics, at least the ones that I read. But, it should be recognized that the state of the unbaptized infant, in traditional Tridentine theology, is dependent upon the Roman Catholic understanding of Original Sin.

        Stated briefly: The “natural state” of the unbaptized infant (who is without “actual sin”) is only “natural” in the light of Rome’s doctrine of Original Sin. The RC doctrine claims that the Fall involved a loss of the “super-added grace” given to Adam and Even, but it did not corrupt their nature as such. Thus, even the unbaptized infant — though having original sin — is able to enjoy the bliss of a pure nature but not the blessedness of a graced nature. Needless to say, Protestants have disputed this understanding of the Fall. But I am interested to see how Rome’s best theologians are able to develop this further, in ways that Protestants may find less obviously objectionable.

      • Ah yes. I missed forgot about the difference in understanding on original sin. The consequence of the Catholic position being that the will is free while for Protestants it is not.

        I too am glad that limbo was never pronounced dogmatically. Peter Abelard proposed it. It’s interesting that one of his views came to be so influential even though he was condemned on many of his other theological views.

      • Roman theology of baptism is not advancing; it is retrieving. It is also in big trouble. Papa Ratzinger knows this.

        The fathers (a) presumed that martyrs and faithful catechumens would live in the new creation, even when they died without baptism and chrismation, but nevertheless also (b) regarded the mystery of initiation into Christ’s death and rising as commanded by Jesus and real in the believer’s life in God. The question is– what makes (a) and (b) seem inconsistent to the West but not to the East? There is probably no reason to doubt John Meyendorff’s answer: they read Romans 5:12 very, very differently.

        The West, construing the syntax of v 12 as St Augustine did, came to view baptism as a remedy for original sin without which salvation is impossible. On that view, the early church practice that both requires initiation of all and dispenses some from it is an intolerable paradox. Thus all Western theology of baptism is more or less in the shadow of the problem of the unbaptized dead, and one could argue that the outworkings of the various proposed solutions, both Catholic and Protestant, have been killing the sacrament for a millennium and a half. Today there is even a tendency to see baptism as unnecessary to the real initiation of receiving communion, which is interesting to sacramentologists in the way cancer is interesting to cell biologists.

        The East, construing v 12 as parallel to 1 Corinthians 15:21, and seeing salvation in the progressive way of 2 Corinthians 3:18, has had and still has no difficulty in seeing initiation as a true change in the earthly lives of those alive to receive it. On that view, it is not so much removing an absolute obstacle to salvation as enabling the next earthly phase of life in Christ. That some die without being sacramentally prepared for the earthly life they do not live has never troubled the East. The classic guide to living out the mystery of initiation as theosis is The Life in Christ, written by the lay hesychast theologian St Nicholas Cabasilas on the eve of the devotio moderna in the West.

        For those who follow the drift of the Council of Orange, if not the untenable exegesis that originally supported it, the urgent question is whether there is any consistent way to stop pitting (a) against (b). For those also attuned to the ecumenical recovery of theosis, it is also important to know how far the several retrieving traditions could go in treating baptism as primarily union with the Person of Jesus Christ. This might be worth a post of its own.,_definitionum_et_declarationum_de_rebus_fidei_et_morum

      • Well, it seems to me at least that the Latin Church is moving away from the Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement and toward Christus Victor probably because of a growing interest in keeping the West and East together in the Catholic Church. If we move away from satisfaction, I imagine that there will be a modification in the way baptism is understood. Whether original sin will look more like ancestral sin I don’t know. But it seems highly likely. We must not forget that the Catholic Church has a West and an East and only in the last 50 years have the Eastern churches received much recognition. As long as attempts are made to “breathe through both lungs” to quote JP2, the East will have more of an influence on the West and (in the Catholic Chudch at least) vice versa. There is a Byzantine Catholic parish near where I live that prays the rosary before the Divine Liturgy and when I attended, the priest mentioned purgatory. The line between West and East is becoming blurred. I can’t imagine even the Orthodox Church in the West escaping from the influence of Western Christianity (Protestant or Catholic). I wonder then how the Orthodox will respond to the developments.

      • Yes, Fariba, pieties that are hybrids of some Western and Eastern elements are emerging on the ground. Some are theological mules unlikely to reproduce– the syncretistic BC parish that you mention sounds as though it has the worst of both worlds. Others are fertile adaptations that meet local needs– eg Roman clergy in Africa who triangulate between East and West in framing a local theology. Over time, a few East-West experiments that prove to have hybrid vigor may exponentially replicate, informing the church of tomorrow. Others we like just as much may be the right ideas in the wrong places at the wrong times.

        On the face of it, the Eastern patristic synthesis is just plain simpler than any alternate scriptural theology that also says ‘God loves you’ but then attaches baroque provisos about original sin, PSA, etc. That alone explains why many book-weary evangelicals are finding their way into Orthodoxy. But the EPS makes most sense in an apocalyptic ethos far darker than the one to which Protestants in steepled Georgian temples with light streaming through clear glass are accustomed. Christus Victor?– over whom, exactly, and what had my life to do with it? Living Orthodoxy knows many good things well, but also a constant mindfulness of evil and of ascetic struggle against it that most of our ancestors left behind long ago. Creative synthesis will have to engage more than sweetness and light, and may be easiest in the world’s shadowlands, some of which are here, of course.

  2. As I see it, this has become somewhat the reality within the Anglican church in North America, of which I am a member. While schism is never preferable, the departure from the Episcopal Church, loss of property and social prestige seems to have given a new sense of mission. Hopefully that ethos survives the coming years. Having been in this church for only two years, what I have found is a humility that comes with loss, and what is apparently a renewed emphasis on right teaching paired with a high Sacramentology. Paedobaptism, and paedocommunion, at least within my parish, Will continue to be the norm for those raised within the church, and rightfully so; but there is currently an active emphasis on mission and reevangelization. My hope is that this will continue, but for the purpose of converts to Christ, not simply a renewed social status. Great excerpt from Pope Benedict, I hope that more will take the spirit of it to heart.

    • the departure from the Episcopal Church, loss of property and social prestige seems to have given a new sense of mission.

      Yes, I have seen this as well in the congregations, like my own, that have left the PCUSA, even though most of the departing congregations have been able to keep their property (albeit sometimes by way of extortion from the presbytery). We were comfortable, and we didn’t know it.

  3. I wonder how this sense of ‘mission’ from Benedict pairs with the emphasis (at least according to EWTN) on ‘evangelization’?

    I’m wondering if they’re merely sitting in the same boat as the Theonomists: the past is screwed up, but we can do it better next time…?

    Is Rome hoping to re-seize control of the public domain and laying dormant for the time being?

    For me, there’s a great gulf between the social organization the Church provides in a crisis (ala. Leo the Great, or Augustine) and dominating. And sometimes the former leads to the latter. Will Rome repeat the same sins of the past?

    • I am sure that is the mindset of many Catholics, though Ratzinger appears to be far more reflective, humble, and aware of the true essence of the church. It is probably safe to say that Ratzinger sees the church as a custodian of all that is good, beautiful, and true in the created order, and it therefore has certain social responsibilities that involve “control” and “power” in certain capacities, though not necessarily determined by any one era of the church’s history. I don’t know.

    • Brilliant, as always, analysis from Douthat. I will be very interested to see what happens with the German (and Swiss) episcopacy over the next few years. But, as I noted in this post, there is little incentive for Rome to accommodate the Germans, with their pathetic commitment to the church, when Africa and Asia are calling.

  4. Four thoughts–

    (1a) Paedobaptism and paedocommunion will continue to be adopted by those Christians for whom the cultural independence of the Church here and now is more important than the C16 Anabaptist problem of separating true disciples from nominal ones in Christendom. Secularization makes the former a greater problem, and the latter a smaller one.

    (1b) Put another way, most Protestant churches have a two step initiation– christening/ baptism near birth and baptism/ confirmation near middle childhood– and they differ phenomenologically in whether the weight of sacramentality is felt at the first or the second. Ceteris paribus, the first secures Christian identity (including the family’s), and the second attempts authenticity (including the individual’s). In a secularized setting, identity will be more protected than authenticity, and the weight may well shift.

    (2) We will someday need to repent a bit of our relief that the weight of Christendom is being lifted, but yes, this much-dreaded secularization feels pretty good. I spend almost no time thinking about narratives of decline, and a fair amount of time thinking about the new things we might be able to do now that were not humanly possible before.

    (3a) I am haunted by Richard B Hays’s insistence that the Moral Vision of the New Testament entails some form of the community of goods. Much that has been assumed about ecclesiology is materially incompatible with such an ethos.

    (3b) Against the welfare state, a certain sort of conservative has always argued that the churches should be taking care of the poor, not the state. Conversely, the architects of the welfare state in most societies have been national churches pressing the rulers of nominally Christian societies to act. How will a cheerfully post-Constantinian church relate to the welfare state?

    “It is probably safe to say that Ratzinger sees the church as a custodian of all that is good, beautiful, and true in the created order, and it therefore has certain social responsibilities that involve “control” and “power” in certain capacities, though not necessarily determined by any one era of the church’s history.”

    (4a) Yes. The proleptic images of ecclesial power are from late antiquity– the emperor giving bishops the authority to probate wills because they were closer to the people; St Basil laying out villages and inventing the departmental hospital; monasteries investing in presses to help farmers sell olive oil; hermits summoned out of their caves to mediate disputes in nearby towns; cantors systematizing the ancient scales and melodies into the eight tones of the octoechos.

    (4b) All that makes Rome (or Canterbury, Uppsala, etc) different is that organization among God’s people tends to concentrate this incidentally accumulated power. If we fear this concentration, with what are we identifying? Quite apart from what popes do, we have occasion now to question the Anglo-American narrative that a strong church weakens society. Would the Mayor of New York find the city more governable if the Archbishop of New York closed all Catholic hospitals, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc?

    (4c) Those who worship the Creator see an integral society– and indeed an integral humanity– where those ruled by idols see only the objects of their desire (cf Romans 1). In organizing around and acting upon that more comprehensive awareness of the human good, God’s people acquire the power of indispensibility wherever they are. We have no calling to seek power itself, but to wallow in weakness would be to flee the calling that we do have.

    • Erratum. The second sentence of my (1b) above should read– “Ceteris paribus, the first secures Christian identity (including the family’s), and the second attempts authenticity (including the congregation’s).” In the former, I have in mind the promises of parents, godparents, and congregation to raise the candidate in the Christian faith. In the latter, I am thinking of Jonathan Edwards’s argument (contra Solomon Stoddard) that the visibility of the Church requires at least a minimal profession of faith from every communicant to distinguish the Body of Christ from the world.

      • Some thoughts on your thoughts:

        Well, that’s not as much an Anabaptist distinction (though that interpretation is valid), but more a Baptist distinctive generally. I think the Nominalism problem is anachronistic. The Zwinglian defectors were motivated by a disgust for the social synthesis Zwingli headed. They protested because of the social nature of baptism.

        This is key: what is baptism an entrance into? The Waldense many times were rebaptized, and rebaptized their children(!), because Rome’s baptism was not into the Church, but a false society based on a devil’s deal between Constantine & Sylvester (as the story went).

        Which leads to the question of societas and communitas. Where do we belong? What is our doctrine of the politics of the Church? Two Swords? Two Kingdoms? Erastianism? Caesaropapism? What is the distance?

        Conservatives complain against Socialism, which in a lot of its veins, runs a certain Constantinian vision of the State & Church. Well Christians are fools to decry socialism instead of seeing how God is using a materialistic modern system to scourge our greed, our synthesis with modern project, and our cultural and racial bigotry.

        And yes, we don’t need to decry power, conceptually. But the lust of power is huge. How quick are we, as sinful men, to justify ends with our sordid means? The Church need not “wallow in weakness” but know our doctrine proclaims a strength in weakness. If we become indispensible, this is a time of great temptation. How quickly will the world ask to reject our convictions and trade our Lord for an idol? How quickly will the world turn on the Church?

        More thoughts below on your other post…


      • Cal, your first paragraph is not altogether clear to me.

        I think that you are saying that C16 re-baptisms were the logical sign of a finding that the acknowledged churches were not the Body of Christ, and a hope that those validly baptized would be revealed as that true Body by their solidarity amid suffering in Christ. Yes, such rites were inspiring deeds of faith in that day, and may be instructive in ours, but insofar as they were historically contingent signs, they can be read in very different and even incongruous ways now: (a) The true church is the one that knows that God is far away and does not promise salvation to believers with matter; (b) The true church is known by the superior rigor of its moralism; (c) The true church takes care of its own, but abandons the world around it to the ruler of this age. Conversely, the Christians being revealed as the Body by their solidarity amid suffering in Christ today are surely the paedobaptized and paedocommunicated Christians being driven from the Middle East. Understandably, you seem to be pressing for the C16 question– who is the true church?– not necessarily the echo of the C16 practice.

        Your paragraphs on the temptations of power point toward a fork in the road. At any given time, the pilgrim Church can either claim the power that may be its just right under the rules of this world at that moment, or it can instead insist on being poor so that power only accrues temporarily and incidentally to its missional work. The Roman option is always to accumulate the power, risk the temptation, do all the good that can be done, and ask God’s forgiveness for the human failings of those corrupted. We might say that this ethos has overcome the subtle temptations of thinking that our fallibility has excused us from our responsibility, or that we are being especially holy if we are especially afraid of power. Being a good Catholic, Dante cast the ascetic Celestine V into hell for a flight from papal power that enabled the ruthless Boniface VIII to wield it instead.

        Rome is not self-evidently mistaken, but there is an evangelical alternative that is also somewhat realistic about power. Justin Welby, the ABC, expresses it when he says that leadership is representing Jesus Christ in a way that inspires the hope without which the collective action to do good is impossible. He has the resume to make the claim– peacemaking negotiations in subsaharan Africa so dangerous that even Al Quaeda vowed to protect him; calming most of the turbulence in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion in about two years; vowing to undercut the usurious interest rates charged by payday lenders in the UK with Church of England credit unions; out-maneuvering the UK government into regulating interest rates after saying that it would not; in the House of Lords drafting a banking reform that does more for honest, stable banking than our Dodd-Frank law does; in the recent General Election acknowledging that none of the parties had offered a vision for Britain that a Christian could accept. It would be hard for even a medieval archbishop to be much more entangled with power than he has become in just two years. But in each of these cases his own influence arises from a plausible and situational representation of Jesus Christ and has its effect because those who hold the ordinary power are corrupt, distrustful, or hopeless. Ironically, his only personal power is over what happens in Canterbury Cathedral. It is just because he holds no power himself that he can exercise some influence for good in England’s season of disillusion.

      • Yes, I am asking the 16th century (and prior for the Underground groups) question: where is the true Church? At what point (which is surely a question raised by Revelation) has a Church ceased to be Christian, and belong to Satan?

        The Mormons do all sorts of good, yet they are not Christians. They too have a vision for rule-and-reign (though extraordinarily chastened after being smashed to pieces by US military through a century of conflict).

        I am a paedobaptist, but not based on Roman or Zwinglian theology. So the issue isn’t about adult-baptism (which is all that credobaptism really claims, despite protests).

        Again, I’m not against influence or power. But there are subtle twists and turns. Rome is saying, in your example, “let us sin so grace may abound”. I don’t see Paul weighing the costs to do the maximum good. That’s the scandal of God. As Jesus put it, there were many lepers in Israel, yet Elijah healed Naaman. Rome’s way is the Karamazov’s Inquisitor.

        And of course a good Roman like Dante would scorn Celestine V! There was never a question of whether the bishop of Rome had become a monstrous throne.

        But all the above is why I prefer to discuss the legacy of the Waldense and not the Anabaptists. The history of the former is more complex, even though heretic-hunters of the day left their condensed and lazy reports. The majority of the protest, again, was on determining a false church.

        This is why Revelation is so crucial in the canon, and a shame it has been so often neglected, only to fall into the hands of utopians and empire-builders (whether at Munster or in Florence with Savonarola).

        Welby has led by a good example it seems. I’m not saying evacuate any node of power. Power is good (and from God). But the means and modes it is exercised determine a lot, even if it does a lot of good. But how often does “getting your hands dirty” justify a willful abandonment of God’s commands. How sweet is the aroma of Casuistry, Lady Folly’s most seductive call-girl.

        Food for thought,

      • Cal, if my comments have distracted us from your point, I’m truly sorry about that.

        I love the Revelations and spent a happy week talking theology with the Waldensians in Venice. But despite our broad agreement, I do not quite see how you connect these to each other and to ‘the church of tomorrow’ here.

        Moreover, it is hard for me to infer much about light from shadow. Your comments on “the detestable enormities of the Bishop of Rome” (as the old Prayerbook had it) are occasioned by my own, of course, but they are not making your positive point more clear.

        Alas, my best guess about what your point may be seems to be influenced more by my current reading than by your actual words. But that guess is– that you are drawing a line between a false church reliant on the sword, and therefore able to stand with the sanguinary rulers of this world, and a true church that is wholly non-coercive, but is therefore far from the enforced solidarity of the worldly. So in your view– is this your view?– Pre-Reformation protest movements were the true church in their day because they lacked the means and the will to coerce, but still suffered in solidarity for Christ.

        C21 churches generally lack means of coercion. For that reason, I have difficulty applying a line so drawn to ‘the church of tomorrow.’ What am I missing?

      • Not to promote myself, but I wrote about this at my blog (

        I bring up the Waldenses exactly because of the Church of tomorrow. I believe that their story is one that remains true to how God’s people ought to exist. The Waldense hid out of fear of persecution, not because they had abandoned being present as a society. The Waldenses influenced the Hussite Revolution, which had very strong visions for reform in Prague (one of the most remarkable was taking in girls from Rome-sponsored brothels to teach a better way of living).

        Yes, many ecclesial institutions lack coercive means. But that doesn’t mean the desire isn’t there. The Moral Majority is only 30 years behind us, and the Bush years even less. The Erastianism of the Christo-America Church is much more subtle than the Church of England was in the past, or any other example.

        But besides this, there is the rest of the non-Western world.

        China will be a great example of this replay: will Christians in China be suckered for coercive force? The Three Self Church has become a mouthpiece (though, I’m only reading that through the Underground movement). What will happen when the Chinese government offers a truce? What is the right course of action?

        If I had to pick any Church “Father” as my advocate, I would defer to Petr Chelcicky.

        Read the Net of Faith:(

        My point in all of this is considering where the ‘Church of Tomorrow’ will go. I’m pleased to see Rome (if Ratzinger is truly her prophet) move towards that direction, despite its heresies. And I’m pleased to see the Anglican communion go that way as well (I thank God for the relatively peaceful dismantling of the British Empire).

        If we want to talk about the future, we need Revelation to guide us with warnings and wisdom. It is easy for the Whore to sprout up and drink the blood of saints.

        If I may make a couple types, Waldo is a more excellent way than Constantine or Sylvester. We should consider lone voices (Aerius or Vigilantius within the 4th/5th century). I want to consider from a different angle.

        And let me say this:

        As much as I appreciate some of the wisdom of the Anabaptists (as I do from Rome, Byzantium etc.) I am not an Anabaptist nor do I aspire to be one.

        Hopefully this explains myself somewhat.


    • In a secularized setting, identity will be more protected than authenticity, and the weight may well shift.

      That is interesting. I have never considered that, nor how it would influence the adoption of padeobaptism.

      I am haunted by Richard B Hays’s insistence that the Moral Vision of the New Testament entails some form of the community of goods. Much that has been assumed about ecclesiology is materially incompatible with such an ethos.

      Yep, but I still do not know how to think about this, practically implemented, even in an imminent “post-Christian” society of ours. Surely, it would require severe losses.

      We have no calling to seek power itself, but to wallow in weakness would be to flee the calling that we do have.

      Amen. Of course, our “indispensability” is not perceived by very many of our elites right now. I think that they would be happy to let the state take over the Catholic hospitals and schools and charities. For liberal Protestants, this socialized ethics is the consummation of the kingdom! This is why I have seen — more than one — liberal Protestant friend become a fervent advocate of socialism. Of course, this secularization has happened to almost every mainline Protestant institution for this reason. Just in the Charlotte area, we have seen the secularization of the Presbyterian hospital, colleges, and retirement communities.

      • “Yep, but I still do not know how to think about this, practically implemented, even in an imminent “post-Christian” society of ours. Surely, it would require severe losses.”

        Three general methodological observations–

        (a) Because the future of the Church in the US will obey Stark’s Law, the predictive factor is not the number of people who find an idea attractive today, but the replicability of conversion to that idea over time. That is, the churches of 2065 will be the outcome, not of sudden mass conversion to something we see on the ground now, but of the exponential growth in the incidence of something very attractive to converts who are willing to convert others.

        (b) Past US history may be an unhelpful guide to what sorts of ideas will attract converting converts now and in the future. Or what looks like a rapid decline in religion per se or in Christianity in particular may simply be a decline in denominations stuck in another phase of American history.

        (c) Evangelical religious capital is likely to be conserved in American religion of the future. This is because the ability to retain one’s present religious beliefs makes a new religious identity attractive.

      • “Of course, our ‘indispensability’ is not perceived by very many of our elites right now. I think that they would be happy to let the state take over the Catholic hospitals and schools and charities. For liberal Protestants, this socialized ethics is the consummation of the kingdom! This is why I have seen — more than one — liberal Protestant friend become a fervent advocate of socialism.”

        This observation is intriguing.

        (5) A viable ecclesiology for the future will address some problems of political theology,* including three to which you allude– (a) Should ‘indispensability’ be as visible as charity? (b) Given the premise that the state or its private contractors can run human services adequately, should the churches that founded them (eg the Catholics) keep them? (c) If Christians believe that the ‘socialized ethics’ of human service corporations have some relation to the kingdom, then to be consistent, must they not also believe that the church should be organized to create and oversee them? **

        (6) A common Church of England view is that, with the mind of Christ, the Church has had the vision to create corporations (eg C 19-20 hospitals, C 21 credit unions) and practices (eg C12 registration of marriages) conducive to order of which the state has never dreamed, but that the same mind of Christ warrants seeing the result as a part of that stability in the realm which the Crown exists to maintain. So a sort of Anglican two kingdoms thinking gives the Church a both the capability to create new institutions and the duty to hand them over to the state once they have become indispensable to society. The Church of England hospitals that formed the core of the National Health Service are the inevitable example.

        (7) American Christians seem to create institutions that are ‘mythopoetically deprived’ (Peter Berger), or as we might say ‘christologically deprived.’ From a certain perspective, if they do not project their denominational piety to all who enter (eg Bibles in waiting rooms, crucifixes in laboratories), then they are ‘merely secular’ and therefore not really worth a church’s attention. It is as if Christ does not want people to be taught, healed, or counseled, but only wants teachers, healers, or counselors as bait to lure people into some place where the appearance of help might make a denominational piety contagious. Or as if we lived a practical polytheism in which human goods are disvalued at church, but valued at the Ruritans, and perhaps controversial in the party’s state convention. The Bibles and crucifixes are fine; the disvalue of human services per se is foreign to the mind of Christ.

        (8) The Church does not know more about guns or violence than other interested parties, but it does have a duty that they do not have– Jesus taught both non-violence and wariness of possessions, and Christians have an implicit duty from him to make recreational firearms as far as possible useless for violence, and especially violent crime. The meaning of the Second Amendment, the property rights of gun owners, the hypothetical right of revolution, etc are all irrelevant to the moral duty of all to avoid even indirect involvement in murder. So too is the cultural squeamishness of urban liberals about assertive masculinity, guns, hunting, etc. So rather than getting entangled in the wars of the Red and the Blue, churches should be saving souls and lives by explaining Jesus’s teaching against violence and his scepticism about ownership, and they should be offering wisdom and counsel to any who seriously doubt either teaching. They should do this, not to assist or weaken the state’s efforts at ‘gun control,’ but because they have a mandate of their own to fight sin and death. So for our present purposes, imagine that churches in greater Charlotte were promoting some entirely voluntary and private practices that made the violent use of firearms less likely and more punishable. Imagine that this effort was attracting a tenacity of commitment and generosity of funding comparable to that given either side of the abortion debate. Both lives and souls would be saved. But how would the churches we know have to change to accomplish this?

        * After the Future of Protestantism debate a year ago, Peter Escalante announced that the Future will be a new political theology pointing to a new church-state relationship, details forthcoming. I have not seen his promised elaboration of this point– perhaps he took it to a journal rather than to the Calvinist International blog– but, for several reasons that may contrast somewhat with his, I agree that a new political theology will probably be among the forces shaping the next American religious landscape.

        ** To truly desire the end is to desire the means as well. Although liberal, socially-oriented Christians might, as liberals, prefer a low style of church, they are hypocrites, with respect to their social concerns, if they also prefer an ecclesiologically weak church. The climb from low-weak to low-strong is not only in the conservative evangelical future.

      • (9) In short, a perceived weakness of Protestantism that an evangelical ecclesiology might address, doubtless assisted by good Reformed dogmatics, is the reluctance or inability of churches to sponsor kingdom institutions as extensive and varied as those of Rome or the Jews. Some liberal churches expect the state to do everything for them. Some conservative churches value only individualistic and otherworldly consequences of obeying Jesus’s commands. Churches at both cultural poles tend to follow their local sensibilities rather than leading them in the mind of Christ. That few at either pole are well-organized to sponsor kingdom institutions seems incompatible with the ‘activism’ that Bebbington found to be characteristic of evangelicalism. That should change.

      • I don’t think the Church need not give up its institutions that it has founded (whether university or hospital), but again, power invites deep corruption. The love of money cuts into the heart. Mammon is designated a great contender with the Lord God (“You can serve only one Master…”). Thus it is easy, in a bid for respectability or just plain need, to embrace sleeze, propaganda, thieving, lying, and a whole host of other things to gain material needs to do one’s job (whether grants, land contracts, building maintenance, credibility etc.)

        If the choice is faithfulness and a wider sense of ‘good’, I hope to God that Christians pick the former. But too often, because of a cultural synthesis (and not a healthy antithesis), the practices that are in place become deigned normal and regulating.

        Benedict may want to preserve what’s good, but what is that and when does that come to conflict? Is the calling of a Christian to be a conservative or a peace-maker? Sometimes the “heritage” that some want to protect is white-washed and purified of its injustice. How many bodies lay between the bricks of Western Europe’s rise to power? Or, in hyperbole and metaphor, why would an American Christian want to landmark the house of Monticello, a sight of blasphemy in word and deed?

        Rome has done too much of baptizing cultural practices that have ruined much of Humanity, and Protestants have done the same, only without the staid principle that Rome has maintained due to its spiritual and temporal distance (the true blessing in Hildebrandt’s reforms). Maybe Rome, after a thousand years of being so often at ends with the saints, will finally turn the corner.


      • Bowman, thanks for this challenging analysis. I could not possibly respond to all of your points, but you can feel free to further offer your insights, either on this post or future posts. Your three “methodological observations” are especially interesting, and we all need to be duly chastened by not allowing past or present indicators determine future receptivity of the gospel.

        So rather than getting entangled in the wars of the Red and the Blue, churches should be saving souls and lives by explaining Jesus’s teaching against violence and his scepticism about ownership, and they should be offering wisdom and counsel to any who seriously doubt either teaching.

        Oh yes, it is a herculean task to tell Christians about Jesus’ “scepticism about ownership.” At one level, many of them know it — because they’ve read the gospels — and yet the rationalizations (often provided by pastors!) are powerful, very powerful.

        I am wary about becoming the next Francis Chan or David Platt — mostly because they are still far too shallow (relying upon emotional manipulation) — but wealth is a danger, according to Jesus. It is a spiritual danger. That needs to be proclaimed once again, without the liberal baggage.

      • Is the calling of a Christian to be a conservative or a peace-maker?

        Surely, the latter, so long as we are careful not to present a false antithesis. This is where I struggle, as you know, Cal. You are correct — and (speaking personally) very helpful to me — to remind us that we can only serve one master, God or mammon. But the other truth, which causes the tension, is that creation (mammon?) has been and is being and will be redeemed, with Christ’s resurrection as the first-fruits. If this is not solely an eschatological truth — but, rather, also a present partaking — then the Christian is called to the messy business of participating in creation, with all of its idolatries.

        Maybe Rome, after a thousand years of being so often at ends with the saints, will finally turn the corner.

        I think so. JP2 and B16 were pushing in this direction, even if we may say inconsistently. Francis, for all of his fumbling around, is doing the same, when he is at his best. However, I see Francis as still far too wedded to an idea of “the Church for all.” This is his residual Latin American heritage. I do not know the extent to which Francis is willing to be hated by the world. Obviously, he is not. Meanwhile, his “pope emeritus” colleague is the arch-villain.

      • Thank you, Kevin, for your kind words here, and for several recent and quite useful blog posts. Thanks as well to Cal and Fariba for replies to my comments that criticize them effectively from our common ground. I look forward to hearing both of your voices again. A parting thought here rounds out other things that I have said on this thread.

        Anybody who can generally follow Kevin’s blog is probably aware of good ideas that are commonplaces among theologians, and could matter to many believers who are not theologians, but lack any effective representation on the ground. For concrete examples, consider–

        (a) Tom Wright’s campaign against misrepresentations of biblical eschatology– not ‘the rapture’ at the end of the world but ‘new creation’; not ‘immortality’ but ‘life after life after death’; not ‘getting into heaven’ but the ‘descent of heaven to earth.’

        (b) Replacing C20 moralism with Richard Hays’s idea of the Moral Vision of the New Testament– an ethic more of virtue than of law; living in a horizon shaped by cross, community, new creation; situational inquiry as a part of responsibility; expectant reliance on Christ’s life in us.

        Why are these good ideas homeless? Quite often, those who know them are pastors who feel obliged to work with the piety in which people experience their faith rather than to try to correct it. This is especially true if the ideas seem too strange to a modern sensibility to be readily adopted by a whole fuddy duddy congregation. Young church planters choose their congregations, but because they must get them to gel quickly, they seldom openly promote corrective theology. Emerging churches are in principle open to fresh expressions of the gospel, but they often have an ethos in which those expressions are expected to come from nearly anybody but a seminary professor, and they too are church plants in a hurry. In other words, no congregational movement is likely to give the ideas of the church of tomorrow a home today.

        While the truth of an idea is not a sufficient condition of its success at any given time, we would have to be very cynical indeed to think that these neglected truths cannot find an ecclesial home anywhere. I see no alternative to the search for a non-congregational sort of church in which neglected truths can be put out there for the discerning adoption of the faithful. Do you?

      • Why are these good ideas homeless?

        This is at the heart of my struggles and concerns. I can rarely find anyone who even recognizes the problem. Phillip Cary is correct, in his FT article (“Barth Wars”), about the homelessness of Barth and how this poses serious questions, both about Barth’s theology and Protestantism. I do not think Barth is sacrosanct or got everything right (likewise for Wright and Hays), but it is a tragedy when someone like Barth, a fine mind and a devoted servant of our Lord, is too “reactionary” and “conservative” for the mainline (including the PCUSA now) and too “modernist” and “liberal” for the evangelical Reformed and their denominations. I hope that you are right, “we would have to be very cynical indeed to think that these neglected truths cannot find an ecclesial home anywhere.” I have to confess that there are good reasons to be cynical right now, but I know that our own vision is severely limited and cannot account for the surprising work of God.

      • But Mammon is not Creation! I think we need to really consider the Torah’s ban on withcraft. I’m not saying “wealth” is bad, or money unusable. But it’s not the use of Creation which is tempting, but rather the how, the means and modes. I’m all for living eschatologically in the here and now (we bear abound a certain kind of resurrection, while we are waiting for its completion in the total redemption of our bodies).

        The temptation is if we give into “short-cuts”. It’s the decision between Wisdom and Folly, though Folly often sounds so good and so true. This is why I pose “peace-maker” or “conservative”. That is, are merely acting as the vanguard for the status-quo or do we have a different vision, radically at odds with the Cities of Men, yet are committed to keeping peace in the streets and be agents of reconciliation.

        Well, V2 is one step in that direction, though possibly a step in the other direction. We will see. Hopefully Benedict’s thought will carry the day. Instead, a non-Western reinstitution may be a possibility (Francis’ muddled vision). I don’t want a western hegemony. It is from hell. But neither do I want to be mastered by any other earthly vision (whether Latino or whatever)

      • Yes, your points about witchcraft, means & ends, and shortcuts is right. I especially like the category of witchcraft, since it ably presents the valorization of creation but for selfish (and self-aggrandizing) ends.

      • When we say that Barth’s theology is homeless, we mean that, like the simpler ones I mentioned, it has no denominational sponsor. The inability of any denomination to make a home for such theology is the failure of the American pattern of church authority, which erected hierarchies of synods, simulacra of the young republic, in the place of the well-instructed princes who aided the reformers. We have constructed voluntary erastian establishments from sea to shining sea that wield the small temporal swords of property and pensions, but no spiritual authority to discern and guide.

        By their inability to recognize theological and spiritual truth, we see that these princely synods are not the Church and never have been the Church, although they have sometimes been good princes to Christian folk. Whatever one thinks about sexuality in Christ, the deep dissensus about that within American churches shows that the blindness goes all the way down to the most elementary things. Our denominations are a force for spiritual anarchy in the Kingdom with well-ordered finances in the eyes of Caesar.

        Fortunately, absolutely everyone sees this. No millennial believes any denomination in the way our grandparents did. Even pillars of local churches do not personally believe anything on the credibility of their quasi-congressional synods. Research like the Pew study and the several Barna studies shows the deepening weakness of denominational ‘loyalty.’ Conversely, the movements that spring up among us here and there offer duct tape fixes for the human problems that arise in a vacuum of spiritual authority. Since sheep recognize the shepherd’s voice, it is not unthinkable that he might speak.

        Our task now is to be much clearer to all about the nature of the spiritual authority we lack. God may give us a better sort of polity– I think that this is likely– but he will first take away the idea that any polity is an engine that cobbles together spiritual discernments as a legislature makes laws. When some ask why God allows such folly in our denominations, i answer that this is the Holy Spirit’s way of showing all that they are emperors, not popes, and that they are truly wearing no clothes. Naming the many small and large discernments that we are missing is the first step to recognizing the shape of spiritual authority that can rightly divide the word of truth in America.

      • At some fateful moment, the all-holy patriarch must decide whether the God-fearing emperor has lost his mandate from heaven. The Church cannot condone merely ambitious rebellion against the Lord’s anointed, of course. But if senators are murmuring, merchants cheating, peasants law-breaking, spies whispering, and swordsmen kneeling to a plausible successor, the patriarch cannot help but ask whether the one for whom he is risking his neck is truly defending the faith. If so, a lifetime of service to Christ will steel him for a dark time. If not, he and his men will ride through the gates, leaving the capital for the distant monastery where the new emperor will know to wash his bloody hands and parley for his coronation.

        I smile a bit to hear that there is a crisis for protestantism from a Lutheran happily attending an Episcopal church like Philip Cary. Even by his demanding standard, much of protestantism is doing quite well, as I think he himself will admit. But yes, the homelessness of Barth– both Hunsinger’s Barth and McCormack’s Barth, to say nothing of Jenson’s Barth– disgraces the throne. The theologians are murmuring; the prelates are dissembling; the people break all the rules they know; the media report it all. Many seem to be waiting for some new force to renew or sweep away the old denominations.

        Either could happen, as God wills. But I think that our role is to reconceive Protestant spiritual authority in a shape that does not “trust in princes and sons of men in whom there is no salvation.” An authority doing work like that is, anyway, the right sort of home for theologians like Barth, Barth, and Barth– among others– to have.

      • Hunsinger’s Barth is the correct Barth. 😉 But more seriously, how do you see Protestantism as “doing quite well” — what in particular are you seeing? From what I see, looking at Europe, mainline Protestantism (and there is little else besides the mainline) is nearly dead. I recently did some research on the French Reformed Church (now merged with the Lutherans to form a Protestant Union), and things are really bad. Or, when we look at the Global South, where it’s an entirely different ballgame, we have the rise of neo-Pentecostalism. I spoke this morning with a Presbyterian seminary dean, and he just got back from Guatemala. His group visited one the large neo-Pentecostal churches (which are dominating the “Protestant” share), and he is not sure to what extent we can even call it Christian — and this is a very irenic and ecumenical guy. Those are just a couple examples that come to mind.

      • Commenting on Philip Cary, Kevin, my consciousness was streaming, not so much about the statistical incidence of confessionalism in the US and the world, as about (a) the Protestant oases I know in several cities, (b) the good Protestant dissertations I read last year, and (c) the number of Catholic clergy and religious I know who have clearly grown through some engagement with the Reformation. If you take a Gritsch & Jenson view of the movement, as I do, then the point of it was the freedom to preach the true gospel, and you do not need for it to be either institutionally permanent or numerically successful. You do need for it to have a robust theological witness, and it has that. Hopefully, your friend the dean is reaching out to the Pentecostals.

      • Thanks for the clarification and further thoughts, Bowman. From that perspective, yes, I can see good things as well.

  5. Cal, I have read your blog, signed up for it, and now see that you are a proponent of neo-waldensian counter-culturalism over against earlier Christendom and later Protestantism, including the Anabaptists. (Why not the Anabaptists?) Generally, yes, it is easy to read the New Testament as the manifesto of a counter-culture. And yes, the church of tomorrow should be counter-cultural.

    However, I cannot recognize the ‘Christendom’ of later Western debates in what we know from the sources today about late antiquity and early Byzantium. In the East, where Constantine is liturgically commemorated as ‘equal to the apostles,’ his embrace of Christianity is celebrated as the initiation of a millenium of counter-cultural reform over against Hellenistic paganism. In contrast, the Western debates over caesaropapism knew only the myth of him received as the papacy cobbled the barbarian kingdoms together into a somewhat unified West. Today, recognizing that the Church continued to be a reforming and critical presence after the death of Diocletian only enriches our resources for a counter-cultural future.

    • My thing is not as much “counter-culture” as a vision for an alternate society. This includes a particular allegiance to the Kingdom of God, conceived as a source of power and government, though one in pilgrimage. I wouldn’t say the New Testament is a ‘manifesto’ for such. It’s the Story of the Person and Work of God’s Messiah and the implications for the world.

      We ought to be shocked how quickly the Church of its day received Constantine and allowed his presence to convene an actual Church council. The problem is not that Caesar became Christian, but what happened afterwards. Again, Constantine is a type, he himself merely represents the root of a problem that began before him, and grew steadily after him.

      It’s not Christians in positions of influence, nor about Christians who are ’employed’ (anachronistic, I know) by governing authorities (i.e. Erastus). I hope the Church of Tomorrow will maintain itself in a position of humility, willing to give away its life to the world, without losing conviction. We will fail (both in the giving and the faithfulness). But let us not think ourselves strong enough to master the world.

      Tertullian said a Christian Caesar is an oxymoron. Chelcicky and JH Yoder questioned whether it was possible, but did not think it impossible. This question should sober us. And honestly, I think speaking from a place of weakness and humility (especially in today) may be the best place to be and bring about peace and reconciliation (all the while heralding the Prince by Whom such is possible!).

      Also: the ‘Why not Anabaptists?’ is more to the general thrust of their theological placement. I’m with them on the importance of a community shaped by baptism into Christ (and not a baptism into christendom, an ethnic pattern, which allowed Zwingli to be both a preacher and a patriot). And I’m with them on the importance of discipline and spiritual growth.

      But they are anti-sacramentarian and have a poor grasp of covenant (and parsing between the Old and New). For these I think they have lacked the tools to grow outside the ethnic enclaves they started in. The only Anabaptists I know about are German. But this has been, more generally, a problem for a lot of Protestants (maybe Anglicans and Reformed the least). So it’s worth more thought.

      • History aside, Cal, we probably agree on lots of things.

        If I delete what you oppose, so that what you affirm stands out more, the result is fairly impressive.

        Someday, I hope that you will comment on the Quakers, either here or on your blog.

      • What is it about Quakers that intrigues you?

        And I briefly wrote about Revelation a couple years ago, and while it still contains the outline of my thought, I have deepened, so maybe it’s time to revisit it.

        I’ve never read any consummate work on Revelation, only an arrow from a couple of people. One I got started seeing all the Hebraic symbols & types that the text is drenched in, I couldn’t go back. Meredeth Kline has been helpful indirectly.

      • While some other groups opposing worldly entanglement practiced only suspicion, withdrawal, and moralism, the original Quaker critique of worldly entanglement positively informed an enduring tradition worship, soteriology, ecclesiology, and works of mercy. To it we owe, for example, the humane treatment of the mentally ill, the dream of criminal justice as correction, and distinct traditions of marriage, childrearing and education.

        The peace-loving, tolerant hippies we know are not representative of the original tradition, which looked somewhat more like this–

        Authentic Quakerism in that spirit is close to extinction. Its ecclesiology does not depend on a connection to the apostles, and appears to permit the movement to be re-founded.

        And although the first Quakers were not Reformed, one probably needs some acquaintance with English Reformed theology to fully understand their views and its controversial summation in Barclay’s Theses and Apology.

        If Quakers have an infra-canon, it is at least the gospel and letters of John, together with the Revelation, and much of their tension with the Reformed was their strongly participative theology.

        The Quakers have a positive theology of tradition as the cumulative testimony of discerning believers to the indwelling rule of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

        An appraisal of Quakerism from the perspective of contemporary biblical and theological knowledge is long overdue.

      • Richard Bauckham has written some of good stuff on Revelation. Especially his book “The Theology of the Book of Revelation”, and secondarily his chapter on Babylon in his book on the Bible and politics (he’s also written more elsewhere that I haven’t read). Gorman’s “Reading Revelation Responsibly” is a broader, more popular-level book.

        Speaking of Quakers and Revelation, one thing often overlooked about Revelation is that it has the strongest denunciation of slavery in the NT. “Slaves – that is, human souls” is the climax of the list denoting Babylon’s greed and avarice. I have no idea if the Quaker abolitionists used this or not though.

      • “My thing is not as much ‘counter-culture’ as a vision for an alternate society.”

        Cal, you dropped this distinction without defining it, but the more I consider it, the more it matters. Let’s compare notes on this.

        It looks to me as though Christian eccentrics in remote rural areas are an alternative society (AS), and Christian eccentrics in the city are counter-cultural (CC). Both emphasize holiness or they would not be eccentric at all, but the former practices withdrawal from civil society for the sake of a more intensive devotion (cf monasticism), and the latter assumes a dissenting position within civil society (cf C20 mainline liberalism). They may have identical theologies and church practices, but they clearly differ on whether connection to ‘the world’ is essential to discipleship. It would be interesting to see how readers of the two types interpret the Bible’s passages on ‘the nations.’

        To be concrete, my mother’s family of Schwarzenau Brethren could well be described as a stable AS that settled the Blue Ridge in the 1740s and never left. They believed that owning people and fighting wars was a sin and therefore excommunicated slave-owners and counselled pacifism, but they did not agitate against slavery or war in the wider society because there was scarcely any wider society in which to agitate. They did feel a responsibility for those in distant parts of the globe, sending money, supplies, and missionaries. But even though there was a strong universalist current in their C18 teaching, they never adopted the American liberal idea that the Church exists largely to influence the wider society for Christ.

        The Quakers seem to have been more CC, believing that their advocacy of pacifism, non-resistance, etc could save persons from the fundamental option for such things that leads them to hell. The resulting persecution forced them to evolve a resilient non-hierachical polity and laic pastoral practice. Although originating in the English Midlands, the Friends were among the first industrialists (eg Josiah Wedgwood’s china) and concentrated in such commercial cities as London and Philadelphia. They too opposed slavery and war, originally believing that a fundamental option for these sends souls to hell, but increasingly also with a reformist mindset influenced by evangelicalism (eg Wilberforce). For C20 American mainline liberalism, the Quakers were something of an exemplar, and they have participated fully in the liberal decline.

        In discussion of the future of the church, use of the term ‘counter-cultural’ often postpones important questions about motivation and ethos. To get a better handle on them, your distinction may be worth further developing, either as I have done it or in some other way.

      • Thanks so much, Joel, for mentioning Richard Bauckham in relation to the Revelations. Bauckham’s idea that the OT pseudoepigrapha are textual traces of the immediate context of Christian origins is surely as consequential as any other historical project of our time. Obviously, as the new narrative of Bauckham, Boyarin, etc displaces the Hellenization hypothesis discredited by Martin Hengel, our understanding of the complex situation of the Revelations in the canon will shift. At least two implications of this shift seem important to our discussion of the church of tomorrow here–

        (a) A source for C21 ecclesiology. The Revelations have not been the resource for ecclesiological renewal that Cal wishes that they were. But if they are the NT work closest to the OT pseudoepigraphic matrix from which the Church emerged, then this might change. Consider with Cal how our conversation about low/high churchmanship might have gone in the context of the Revelations. Or what we might conclude about nonconformity as ‘alternate society’ and as ‘counter-culture.’

        (b) An emerging center for C21 piety. Apocalypticism has shaped the faith of evangelicals, non-conformists, pentecostals, and easterners (ie Orthodox, Byzantine Catholics, Oriental Churches, etc), and is the key that unlocks several theological positions marginal to C20 ecumenism. Over time, comparative exegesis of the Revelations could facilitate otherwise impossible conversations and even collaborations among those from these traditions.

        Do you see others?

      • So that’s an interesting distinction.

        While I appreciate Anabaptist distinctions (them and the many Brethren movements), their legacy has been much less so and is a mere shadow. As an acquaintance put it: they are like Jews who left Babylon out of fear of corruption and built a mini Jerusalem on some neighboring hill. That is not obedient to remain in Babylon (and in a sense deceptive, because they are still there), but also because they think they have built some kind of solution. Nothing will replace the true Jerusalem.

        That’s not the idea of ‘Alternate Society’ that I’m proposing.

        The reason I set up the distinctions as I did (and their definitely up for revision for clarity’s sake) was the implications. In Counter-Culture, the intent is more to exist in the same polity but run at a different current than it. Not to sound Hegelian, but the problem is that Counter-Culture will inevitably run into synthesis. This view tends to be, somewhere, as a “loyal opposition”, to say that liberally.

        Hippes, KKK, Black Panthers, John Brown, Social-Gospel, all of these represent a form of counter-culture. But the ideal is to redirect the ship, in some kind of way. There are varying commitments to a reluctant obedience, some are more prone to violence and revolution. The difference between a “loyal opposition” proper is they exist outside the boundaries of the legitimate channels of power.

        For Alternate Society, I draw on some of the recent work of Hauerwas, Cavanaugh, and Jamie Smith. In an Alternate Society, there is a whole other vision cast that has loyalty to a different polis, different government, different structure. They may or may not be involved in society, or care about its outcome (or whether they, as a group, are protected). They may desire power in the system, or they may want a seat at the table, or they may ignore the whole process.

        Jews (for most of their history post-Diaspora) and Nation of Islam are examples I can think of in America. But these are inadequate to describe the kind of evangelistic zeal present in the Gospel.

        The difference between Christ’s people, and all others, and we are not a stranded or confused people, but a pilgrim people. We do not create a new state or chart out a new land because these are temptations of the flesh, and no longer needed now that we see the full revelation of God.

        We share a similar culture and language with those where we live, but we are of a different ethos. The Christian mission is evangelistic, so we repurpose the tools we happen upon (and we don’t need a special language, a special philosophy etc.) We have a distinct history of who we are and where we’re going.

        But Alternate Society is not sufficient enough. Imperial Papist Rome conceives itself an Alternate Society, but has (like other groups) a vision to conquer. For those of that opinion, the high days were when the Pope could make kings beg and grovel. But that sort of power is dangerous, and we are apt to think that we are to take over Babylon (like a Jew becoming a Babylonian king and proclaiming it a new holy land with a new temple, and obedient as a Nation to the Torah).

        We ought to lead and move through the Spirit, not Temporal power. But this is not a lean to assisting the rule of the Temporal rulers. We are not agents of status quo and conservation. We are peace-makers and reconcilers who have no favorites (ideally).

        As Jacques Ellul gave an anecdote: when the Free French became the victors, they persecuted the Collaborators. Many Christian authorities condoned such behavior, and in doing so they revealed themselves as agents not of Christ, but Free France. The Church’s position is much uglier: shielding even the vile Collaborators from death, even if justly deserved.

        Those are some tentative thoughts.


      • Cal, your tentative thoughts are close to my provisional thoughts; we’ve used AS and CC in the same way. I think, though, that those of the AS type can define themselves without opposition to some failed or sinful other, while the CC type knowingly risks being defined in that opposition in the belief that human solidarity is a kingdom good that demands it. Both the AS and the CC are suspicious of power from worldly sources, but neither are holier than thou haters. At some point, this becomes an essay in comparative exegesis. I hope we reach that point soon.

        Alas, we again recall the history differently. I have no idea what your friend has against Anabaptists. The image of ‘little Jerusalem’ on the edge of Babylon is evocative, but does not make sense of AS people who think that the true Body of Christ is the only Jerusalem that will ever be, and that their only duty is to single-mindedly be that Body and trust the Lord to do with all things what he will. Nor can I see Rome as an AS, although, even in the West, monasticism has in some times and places been an AS in some tension with the powers that thought they were.

        Eastern monastics see themselves as the heirs of the prophets, and have been in constant creative conflict with their patriarchs and rulers from the very beginning. This notion of contested authority seems to be unthinkable in the West, where the question is always about who has the final word, and never about the possibility that such authority might not be scriptural. Whatever you think about their present argument (the Wikipedia account has a certain Western bias), the defiant monks of Esphigmenou under their black flag may be the closest in spirit to what you prefer.

  6. “Why are these good ideas homeless?”

    “This is at the heart of my struggles and concerns. I can rarely find anyone who even recognizes the problem.”

    “We aren’t starting ECO because relationships were strained, we had theological disagreements, or we didn’t like the direction the denomination was going in. We’re starting ECO because people are going to hell.” — John Ortberg

    My concerns:

    (a) Isolated readers. Online, those convinced by the good ideas often mention their difficulty participating in congregations that stumble on with legacy theologies. Even if I assume that bloggers may be a bit more introverted or socially shy than the population as a whole, this is a surprising phenomenon. Ideas usually connect people; theological ideas usually strengthen participation in churches. When these things do not happen, something is wrong.

    (b) Koinonia averted. To St Paul, the koinonia of the faithful is where heaven and earth touch, and the good ideas enable this. Yet many churches thrive on shallower connection, and it can seem that the apparent neglect of those ideas is precisely an aversion to that koinonia.

    (c) Dispirited practice. Our faith teaches that the Holy Spirit rules the Church as we learn more about what the scriptures say and mean. Neglect of these insights is unfaithful and unfruitful.

    (d) Outdated witness. Those on the Church’s margins or beyond need, not nostalgia, but the timely witness that the good ideas make possible. We should not ruminate about numbers, though we should study them, but we should care about the quality of the representation of Christ to those being counted.

    • Good thoughts. I agree. By the way, I should say that my ECO Pres church is fantastic — they’ve given me teaching opportunities and other ministry opportunities. I’ve established solid relationships with the elders and deacons. We’ve revitalized the teaching ministry of the church, and I’m free to bring the wealth of theological resources to bear on their daily walk with the Lord.

      • The best single argument for ECO was that the theological pluralism of PCUSA was not sustainable in healthy presbyterian practice, while the doctrinal conformity sought by the PCA and OPC is more than that practice requires. In ECO, clergy can have conversations on some common ground, yet without expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

    • Why hasn’t aren’t the homeless more non-conformist? And why aren’t those who wish to stop conforming more drawn to fresh theology? I find myself trying to think concretely about what relates Kevin’s comments here to Cal’s, about what relates the homelessness of non-legacy theology– most obviously Barth’s– to the aspiration for Church with a non-comformist ethos that is remarkably widespread among both Red and Blue Christians of every major tradition.

      Thus far, the relation, if any, is elusive. Certain aspects of social conformity that seem innocuous in themselves probably do inhibit testing of recent theology. However, the counterfactual does not appear to be true– socially non-conformist Christians are not notably turning to theology for experimental inspiration. Thoughts anyone?

      And there is a third consideration. The church of tomorrow will be global, not only in the sense that other centers of initiative are emerging far from the North Atlantic, but also in the sense that diasporas from those centers will become part of the religious fabric of America and Europe. Pentecostalism is the banner of this reordering, much as the Reformation was the banner over the emergence of Northern Europe from Roman tutelage.

      Do we know Christians in the US who think that we need engagement with the East Africa Revival? Or that a mission to immigrants from the south that learns from but purifies Pentecostalism is more important than tracking the decline of mainline membership? Yet such efforts could only flourish amid a certain social non-conformity and a theology independent of legacy-mindedness.

  7. To facilitate face-to-face discussion of these matters, I am drafting a call for papers and request for proposals. Prayers and suggestions for this project are herewith solicited.

    • Referring to a prior comment:

      I don’t know if we’re on the same page in our definitions. In my thinking, an Alternative Society is a mere conceptual framework of a ‘people-in-exile’. This may not be literal, like Native Americans in the US or Jews in the Roman Empire. They have their own laws and land, as long as the community obeys certain rules dictated by the Suzerain. This is a kind of federalism.

      But the difference between the Church (the True Israel, the People of God etc.) and any of these Alternative Societies is its provenance is spiritual. Jesus announces that all promises are yes and amen in Him. This means the promise of the Land, the promise of the Temple, the promise of the Kingship. Therefore how the Church conceives (according to Acts and Revelation) her relation to the world, is a Spiritual Kingdom that awaits a fulfillment.

      Again, my problem with Anabaptist groups (not all of them!!) is a kind of escapism and ethnic enclaving. The call of the Kingdom is not to form a separate village. Not only because the Lord commands us to be in the world (which despite monks’ and separatist communities’ best intentions is present everywhere), but because, but also because, as a biblicist, the Scripture never conceives of such or gives us the tools to think this through.

      The Apostles form new communities, with leadership, but ones not in competition with Rome’s social vision. The Church offends Rome because it looks to clouds for the Son of Man, but it has no desire to sit on Caesar’s throne. We all know it doesn’t really belong to Him, and God’s providence allows him there for a time.

      Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t see the Church’s role to be a government agency, a separate sphere of “spiritual” authority only to be unleashed on Sunday, to take over countries and make “christian” states, or any of this. The vision of Acts is simple and difficult.

      I respect the government of America, but it is not my government. As a member of God’s Congregation, I am commissioned maintain the peace but my allegiance is towards the reign of King Jesus. I believe His Presence is real, and formative for my politics. The Kingdom is Spiritual, but this does not mean it only has effect on my mental, emotional, and “internal” state. It defines what I can and can’t do with my body, which means I may not be a good citizen in certain times of crisis.

      I am hoping the Future Church is able to embody the reality of what is taught in Revelation.

      And yes Bowman, I’d love to see what you can muster. I don’t have an idea for what topic would be narrow enough to issue a call for papers. But I’d love to participate. My email is:


      • Cal, your distilled affirmations make sense, and could have been joined by many Christian writers– among both the earliest and the very latest– as you know. The Orthodox led by nuns and monks to occupy government buildings to protest the Greek decision to remove the category ‘religion’ from EU-mandated identity cards are probably in deep sympathy with your position, and certainly not unaware of certain ironies of their circumstances and position.

        Do we differ? Since I seldom recognize the intentions that you impute to groups hither and yon, I cannot quite follow your arguments that those intentions have been misguided. In part, this is because intention is a slippery thing, even in the living, never mind the inner resolutions of those past. In part, it is because nearly all human action is ambiguous and even ironic when we see its whole context. In part, it is simply that the West knows more about eastern things significant to our discussion than is actually true. Over there, after all, the political theology of Mohammed and Seljuq mattered as much as that of Licinius and Constantine in the thousand years after the Edict of Milan. The hazard of defining a position simply by opposition to apparent error is that one gives many hostages to fortune. Personally, I avoid it.

        On the Revelations, you may enjoy reading this–

        Thanks for your address. I’ll be in touch.

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