Thursday, July 24, 2008

Passivity vs. Participation

I'm contemplating closing down my blog because I don't pay close enough attention to it. But then along comes something, like Tuesday, and I'm glad to have a place to think things through in black-and-white.

I wrote in the "Acknowledgements" section of my family studies thesis that "an acknowledgements page is an author's place to boast of the quality of his friendships." I think that this blog, too, serves that purpose for me. Let me show you.

Tuesday evening Brother-in-Christ Paul paid a visit. We keep in touch by e-mail, but because of the geographical distance between us, we may see each other about once or twice a year. Returning from a holiday trip, he stayed over in the Twin Cities and spent an evening with my family and me. (The family went to be a lot earlier than Paul and I wrapped up our conversation!)

Paul has been ordained about 4 years now (I was the assisting minister at his ordination, so I feel a special investment in his ministry), and since then he has come to occupy a significant space in my heart and head. We differ, I think, fairly radically on matters of theological expression, but we are kindred spirits in our desire to uphold the classic faith (he's a little less interested in the ecumenical aspects of that faith than am I) and to articulate church's theology in clear, orthodox, serious terms. Paul is a modern-day Gnesio-Lutheran (I think he even styles himself that sometimes, but always with a twinkle in the eye, to which I reply that he sounds more like a Gnesio-Melancthonian than -Lutheran), whereas I am -- what? A dilettante, I suppose. Paul has the makings, and the initial training, to be a first-rate scholar (though I hope he stays in the parish because we need more scholar-pastors); I am a hobbyist. Paul is pastoral, friendly, and diplomatic; I am brash, too-old-to-care-much, and far-from-pastoral.

This time's conversation turned to the issue of grace in the Christian life -- something we both acknowledge is the beginning point for any conversation about the Christian faith. (In fact, I think I caught some Barthian sympathies for a reversal of the law-gospel order into gospel-first-then-law. But I won't press the lad on that quite yet. He did admit, of course, that his great hero and guide, Gerhard Forde, was influenced by and a great admirer of Karl Barth. So there you have it: Jolly good.)

Paul insists on a kind of classic Lutheran, though not an exclusive, emphasis on the forensic aspects of God's grace. I, as I make all too unclear on these "pages," think that an over-played theme. Paul dismisses my fondness for concepts of "participation" in Christ (and consequently, in the Trinity), which I note to him is Biblical-Paul-ine language, and instead urges Apostle Paul's talk of being "conformed" to Christ. On the surface, as I discuss below, that seems to be a wide divide -- and I think there are some pretty serious implications for opting for one or the other (which one, of course, need not do -- by my lights, anyway). But after reflecting for a couple of days, I think I'm beginning to see that Friend Paul and I may be divided by a common language. (Tip of the hat to Mencken.) We use a common Lutheran vocabulary, but we neither use the terms in ways the other person quite understands. And the more we talk, the more I realize that, while we have real differences, the differences are often at different places than I expect.

Of course, that latest insight is precisely the experience of those who engage in theological dialogue -- Episcopalians and American Lutherans; Roman Catholics and Lutherans, Lutherans and the Orthodox traditions. (I'm eager to see reports of the dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Disciples of Christ. That ought to be fascinating.) We need, on the classic debate model, to define terms and concepts carefully; we can't assume that "justification" means "justification" or that "no law" means "antinomianism."

But on to one issue that I'll continue to raise with Paul. I think there is a tendency in "classic" Lutheran theology to make two mistakes, missteps, or something of the sort. (And remember: I'm in this camp, so I speak out of love, not triumphalism.) First, I think the classic expression of Lutheran doctrine (and this is the result, I suppose, of battles in the Lutheran scholastic period) is too static to do justice to the Biblical revelation. And second, I think Lutheranism doesn't really have a theology of the Church (an ecclesiology), and that lack makes it difficult for us to speak of salvation in any but in rather static terms.

First, Lutheran talk is often static: Justification, grace, forensic judgments, and the like conjure up a universe in which human beings just sort of sit there and take it. We are acted upon for the sheer point of being acted upon. And so we are declared justified; we are showered with grace; we are assured of forgiveness. And certainly I have to problem with that kind of language as far as it goes. But "as far as it goes" is precisely my problem: I don't think it goes far enough to capture the biblical witness. This grace business, this justification stuff, this salvific action is not static; it is a dynamic power or process (not in the sense of process theology) that -- according to Jesus and Paul and significant others -- effects (not affects: in this, effects -- i.e., makes happen) what it offers and says.

Often I think of Lutheran "gospel" in these terms: (I didn't get a baptismal certificate; instead, mine is contained in a wonderful little booklet -- very fancy and very classy.) But suppose I got a nicely caligraphed baptismal certificate, such as are common today. I frame it and hang it on the wall. Now I know that I'm grace-filled; the certificate hangs on the wall as a nice reminder and as evidence. It's all done now; I'm free to go about my way, confident of God's love regardless of what I do. It's a sign of status: Dwight is a child of God, and he can prove it. And in this case, the status is permanent and irrevocable (at least, that's the point of most Lutheran preaching I hear). Grace is something done to me -- usually explained in past tense. And it's all very narrowly prescribed, very nailed-down, not very dynamic.

Oh, it's good news, of course. How really amazing -- one might say, big -- of God to reach out to me, a sinner. What wonderful news that he loves me and has taken me to himself (whatever that's supposed to me), contrary to all reason and justice, over the contradindications of my sin. So I will of course worship him every Sunday, firmly announcing my "Amens" to the prayers and singing the hymns with gusto.

But it's still rather one- or maybe two-dimensional. The certificate is a metaphor for my life of faith: It's a photograph, a snapshot, a painting on a wall. It's not a life; it's not a challenge (except to "believe" it so that it's true -- we won't go into the legalism of that kind of talk); it doesn't go very far. Oh, with due respect to my friend, we may be "conformed" to Christ: The Apostle talks of that, yes. But the sense I get from that language puts me in mind of a statue: It's molded to stand eternally on its pedestal; the clay or marble has been conformed to the sculptor's vision or intention. But where does it go?

I counter with what seems to me to be a more dynamic model for/of salvation. I can variously describe it, but an exciting word for me right now is "participation" in Christ -- especially in contrast to "conformed" to Christ. I suppose it roots in my affection for Eastern theology (where sin figures into the picture in different way), my respect for Anabaptist traditions, and my reading for the Matthew class. But this is a major theme in Apostle Paul, too, and I don't know why it doesn't get more play in Lutheranism.

I am drawn to this theological perspective, aside from its coherence with the Biblical narrative, because it excites me, it seems to have a point, it makes sense of all that "growth in grace" talk in the Bible and the liturgy. Instead of God's granting me a status, he inducts me into his life and mission. Instead of my baptismal certificate's hanging on the wall as a status marker, it is rather a draft notice, an induction order. (Of course, it is more invitation than "order" -- but put the best construction on what I'm doing.) This all carries more existential bite than the old preaching.

Following is an excerpt from an evangelical's book on the life of faith (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement). At this point in his analysis, McKnight sets forth his idea that salvation involves being restored to the imago dei of Genesis. He uses the Greek work eikon to substitute for the Latin phrase (and the English equivalent, "image of God"). And here he sets out a description of what being God's eikon means:

To be an Eikon means, first of all, to be in union with God as Eikons; second, it means to be in communion with other Eikons; and third, it means to participation with God in his crating, his ruling, his speaking, his naming, his ordering, his variety and beauty, his location, his partnering, and his resting, and to oblige God in his obligating of us. Thus, an Eikon is God-oriented, self-oriented, other-oriented, and cosmos-oriented. To be an Eikon is to be a missional being -- one designed to love God, self, and others and to represent God by participating in God's rule in this world.
Now I find that really exciting talk. To be so graced by God as to be drawn into this life "in this world and the next" is, to my ear, total Gospel. That this graced-ness has a form also makes perfect sense for continuing to live in the world. It sounds like the Sermon on the Mount, and Bonhoeffer, and Hauerwas. But for that to make sense as Gospel, we must move on to a second practical weakness in Lutheran theology -- that of the lack of (or at least a diminished) ecclesiology. But that is for the next post.

1 comment:

Joel Woodward said...

Though I'm not particularily fond of the term "participatioin" with all the Orthodox implications, I heartily agree with your complaint. I've been fighting against this for some time. The especial syndrome of this stasis is the strict belief that grace is simply (and only) God's favor towards us. With that said, I also don't agree with the Catholic "gratia infusa" as if God poured some power into us to make us "super human." I prefer to think of it as the Holy Spirit's work THROUGH us. I have just posted on this topic: "The Will and Power of Man in Sanctification"; you can read it here:

I think the Solid Declaration, Article II does an excellent job at framing the issue, especially paragraphs 70-72.