Monday, January 14, 2008

The "Fullness" of the "one, true Church"?

[Note: A friend informed me that my link to Fr. Stephen's blog misdirected the reader to a porn site. I don't know how that link got changed (I checked it after I posted), but I've corrected it (with hopes it will stay corrected) -- and I apologize to anyone who got caught by that. I'm checking into whether I was hacked or what might have gone wrong. But for now I can only be chagrined.]

Caveat: As has been all-too-apparent from my previous postings, I am pretty unsophisticated in ecclesiology. I know that it’s important, and I’m trying to get my mind around the issues. But I have a long way to go: I am a Lutheran, after all, as we Lutherans are not notable for our contributions to a theology of the Church. Nevertheless, with an attitude of “fools rush in,” I offer these remarks.

In a touching and thought-provoking essay (here), Fr. Stephen, at “Glory to God for All Things,” has written about his preference for calling the Orthodox Church the “fullness “ of the Christian faith over asserting that it is “the one, true Church.” Of course, it’s not that he doesn’t believe that his Church is “the one, true.” But, as he says:

I believe it is the one, true Church, but how I understand that as an Orthodox Christian is quite different from how such a statement might be understood by a non-Orthodox Christian. Thus, I prefer the term “fullness.” It says the same thing (in a way) but also says it in a way that allows someone to ask questions and not just have an argument. The Scriptures (Eph. 1:23) describe the Church as “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Thus it is a Scriptural description of the Church.

He goes on to describe what “fullness” means to him. And I find that I resonate to his preference for usage and to his description of “fullness.” I think he’s correct that, e.g., we Lutherans experience an urgent desire to post some theses when we hear the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church assert that the RCC is “the one, true Church” and when he, even in the most ecumenical of statements, points out the ecclesial deficiencies of other bodies which claim the name “Church.” So, to my eye, “fullness” avoids much of the surface reason to raise hackles. Openness to questions, rather than a fighting stance, is a churchly posture (despite the Lutheran willingness to “take arms against a sea of [theological] troubles and by opposing, end them” – with apologies to The Bard).

But it is precisely because the term “fullness” biblically expresses “all we are meant to be” that I take issue with his or any Christian’s ascription of the term “fullness” to his or her Christian tradition, denomination, or congregation. I suppose part of my objection roots in my Lutheranism – and here, I hope, Brother Paul takes heart (for he fears, at times, that I strain against the boundaries of Lutheran understandings). We confess that all that is necessary to know to identify the Church is that the Gospel is preached there (“in its purity”) and the sacraments are ministered in a way congruent with the gospel. My reading of Lutheran theology suggests that we’ve been a lot better is saying what that does not mean than unpacking what it does. But I digress.

Part of my objection, however, also roots in a hard-headed ecumenical stance that I commend to every Christian: Because the oneness of the Church (which we Christians confess in the Creed is a reality) is too close to a gnostic dream (i.e., true in some deep spiritual reality, but far from true as far as “facts on the ground” are concerned), I deny that Orthodoxy or any Lutheran tradition or the Roman Catholic communion or any other can rightly claim “fullness.” We may claim that adjective or noun only were we to be working our uttermost to reconcile in deep, committed, formal, and Eucharistic fellowship with all other Christians – and (here I’m tentative) maybe not even then, until we have reached a state of such fellowship). The moment any tradition claims that “we are the one, true and you are welcome to join us on our terms,” we have lost fullness and substituted something else, something less.

Now, know that I confess the oneness of the Church as it is mandated by the Creed, and I do not do so in some kind of precatory or hope-filled or Gnostic way only. But that confession is also judgment on the ways the Churches have of denying their oneness on grounds of theological terminology, ethnic or national genetics, structural arrangements, or what have you.

And by these comments, I do not mean to buy into the whole “throw open the doors” approach to Eucharistic fellowship (which, lamentably, seems to be the ELCA’s posture). There are some things worth Eucharistic fasting over. (“Eucharistic fasting” is one of my polite terms for “close” or “closed” communion.) But so long as there are such issues (and I admit the dilemma inherent to my arguments here), the fullness of the Church rests in none of its incarnations.

The Church is the Body of Christ – literally, metaphorically, spiritually, economically, and all the rest. But it is a bruised and battered body – no more the “fullness” of God’s intentions for her than was the dead body of Jesus the fullness of God's intentions for him: Jesus' body -- even dead -- was most assuredly the divine-and-human Christ as confessed in Article II, but that body was not all that Jesus Christ was or was meant to be. Not until God worked the Resurrection and Ascension can we speak of the “fullness” of the Christ in the sense that Fr. Stephen wants to speak of the “fullness” of the Church, even in these "in-between times" – or so, at least it seems to me. (See: My Christology is as weak as my ecclesiology.)

I don’t have alternative terminology to suggest: What I ask, however, is terminology that preserves the dialectical tension, the eschatological sense that inheres in such pairs as “already/not yet” and “simul justus et peccator.” The mixedness of the Church's reality requires that at this time.


-C said...
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-C said...

I actually pretty much agree with Fr. Stephen (there's a surprise!). I don't use the "we are the True Church" lingo, either, tho I have a couple of friends who never tire of teasing me about/with this terminology. I remember how off-putting I found such language even when I was an inquirer into Orthodoxy. I do believe that Orthodoxy is the true church, but this doesn't necessarily mean that I think that everyone who is not Orthodox is not part of the true church. Maybe this makes me a less-than-Orthodox-Orthodox Christian.

I think of the "fullness" of Orthodoxy in a much simpler way, in that Orthodoxy continues to embrace many things that the post-Reformation church and especially the contemporary protestant protestantism has bagged (the saints, icons, the Theotokos, confession of the non-general variety, and other things). All have led at least me to a fuller expression and experience of the Christian faith. I remember feeling sort of cheated out of all that important stuff as I was first learning about it.

So comparatively, it does seem full indeed.

This is perhaps overly simple and not exactly related to your comments, but not completely unrelated when we speak of the fullness of the church, I don't think. Such fullness is manifested in many different ways.

Dwight P. said...

I'm sure that what you say is much of what Father Stephen means to say, and on that, as you might suspect, I agree, too. My point, however, was simply to raise the bar a little -- to urge all of us to be aware of the less-than-fullness that exists until such time as we can no longer compare ourselves one to another.

The ecumenical movement is helping various branches of the Christian tree to recognize their interdependence and so to recover and reform historic forms, meanings, practices, and the like which you cite.

-C said...

I cannot speak with authority about Orthodoxy in any way, only about my own particiption in it.

I'm not so sure that the ecumenical movement is high priority for many Orthodox Christians (and I can see why, though little grieves me more that the divisions which exist in the Christian Church - I wish they did not exist, but I have come to understand at least a little why such divisions are perhaps important).

-C said...

Just to clarify, I'm not saying that the ecumenical movement is not important for any Orthodox Christians, but that it is not important for many (I think that this is true of many Lutherans, too, no?)

But I know that it is important for some.

-C said...

Having in front of me the "liturgy" for this Sunday's RIC service, "affirming anew our welcome..." or whatever, I am in a very concrete way reminded of why these divisions are important. And grieved as I am to see this service (and I am deeply grieved), I understand so much more clearly why such divisions are absolutely necessary.

Dwight P. said...

-C, the divisions are, indeed, important -- and perhaps necessary for the preservation of the faith. But I'm going to stand by my originally intended (if poorly stated) thought: We must never rejoice that we have these divisions. To do so is to smack of the problems Jesus denounced in his parable where the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like the lowly publican.

God knows that we all have our blind spots, for which we must pray the miracle of new sight. And in the meantime, with the best of intentions and with a minimum of personal invective, we tap our way through life, dependent on the white stick of the Gospel, praying that we are following the straight and narrow and not walking down the middle of the railroad track in the face of the on-coming express!

Peace and affection,

-C said...

"And in the meantime, with the best of intentions and with a minimum of personal invective, we tap our way through life, dependent on the white stick of the Gospel, praying that we are following the straight and narrow and not walking down the middle of the railroad track in the face of the on-coming express!"

I love this analogy and it is so true. Yet, at the risk of sounding like the Pharisee we all love to decry, I must say that when the train that leads to our destruction is coming straight for us, and we can plainly hear it coming, what choices do we have?

We either stay on the track (to our own destruction), Pray like hell that it will suddenly stop before it reaches us(like that's gonna happen), or we get off that track.

Those that stay on the track obviously have much more faith than I do.

Dwight P. said...

And once again, I most assuredly cannot disagree. Of course, there is the possibility that the train is coming into the station and WILL stop. But that is a tiny nit to pick (hope springs eternal). You, of course, have it right.