Saturday, October 10, 2009

Evangelical Ecclesiology - Apostolicity

Evangelical churhes have a reputation for being "ecclesiologically lite" and bigger on soteriology and individual piety. I remember having a conversation long ago with a liberal protestant minister who told me that the problem with evangelicals is that "you don't have an ecclesiology". To which I replied, "no, I think our problem is that we don't have your ecclesiology" which I thought was a good come back. But this makes me wonder, how does an evangelical ecclesilogy differ from a liberal protestant, anglo-catholic, othodox, or Roman catholic one.? Given that evangelicalism is made up of various denominations with divergent ecclesiologies the notion of a shared ecclesiology is a bit of an impossibility in the absolute sense. Still, I think one of the key differences between evangelical and liberal protestant churches is how they understand apostolicity. What should be valued more: the integrity of the apostolic message or the physical representation of unity in the apostolic churches? If one defines apostilicity theologically (and I think we must), what do we do with those churches that stand in a genealogical relationship to the ancient church, but for a variety of reasons have departed from the apostolic message according to our perceptions? Is there any value in having a genealogical relationship (i.e., apostolic succession) with the ancient church? If so, how do evangelicals get some of it? Alternatively, does faithfully holding to the apostolic message enable a spiritual unity that reaches across all boundaries and borders of space, time, and place that is more important than institutional unity? Many questions here, much to think about!


Matt Jenson said...

Roger Olson, in response to dismissals of free church ecclesiology: ‘That’s like someone who values baroque architecture saying to a person who lives in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, “But your house doesn’t have architecture!”’

-- Roger E. Olson, ‘Free Church Ecclesiology and Evangelical Spirituality: A Unique Compatibility’, in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 162

Andy Rowell said...

I just wanted to encourage you that you are on the right track here with your questions. Ecclesiology is what I am looking at in my doctoral work here at Duke. Here are few voices who have been helpful--Rowan Williams (Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church), Miroslav Volf (After Our Likeness: The Church As the Image of the Trinity), Lesslie Newbigin (The Household of God), and John Howard Yoder (The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiastical and Ecumenical).

Karl Barth says “the list of the predecessors of the bishop” is the “equivocal notion of the ‘apostolic succession,’[1]. In other words, he dismisses the Roman Catholic insistence on "genealogical relationship" but on the other hand, he writes that there is however "a legitimate apostolic succession, the existence of a Church in the following of the apostles, only when it takes place in this history that the apostolic witness finds in a community discipleship, hearing, obedience, respect and observance." [2] This is what you call "faithfully holding to the apostolic message."

Still, the Roman Catholics are right to say that if our (free church / Anabaptist / Baptist / non-denominational / Pentecostal) beliefs and practices are not recognizably orthodox in historical and global perspective, then we should be concerned about whether what we believe and do is faithful to the apostles and "catholic." They point to the 33,000 worldwide denominations and ask how we can claim to be part of the one Church. If we are more characterized by division and unity in Christ, then our 'apostolicity' looks more like the "super-apostles" than than of Paul (2 Cor 11:4-5).

I'm always grateful for your thoughtfulness. I'm working under Richard Hays at Duke and trying to emulate you and Scot McKnight in speaking thoughtfully about theology with New Testament training.

Grace and peace,


[1] Barth, CD Volume IV,1 § 62, 715.

[2] Barth, CD Volume IV,1 § 62, 719.

Chris TerryNelson said...

In the end, I think it's important to recognize that apostolicity is, of the four marks of the church, the truly central mark around which the other three (one, holy, catholic) are defined. It's clear that the Gospel is the priority in the church, and I think it's fair to say that the lack of unity in the Church is a result fighting over other agendas that do not impinge on the Gospel message. In the end, these other agendas are what ecclesiology is typically built on, and the ecumenical movement has tried to find the lowest common denominator among these (to the neglect of the Gospel). But even if lack of unity was a result of fighting over the Gospel, would this be so bad? This fighting for the Gospel would unite the church all the more, for it would be the proper fight, the safe fight in the family. It certainly beats pretending to all get along, and congratulating ourselves on building a unified church - a project riddled with idolatry.

J. K. Walters said...

Dr. Bird, thanks for an interesting and insightful post. I think your questions do a really good job of bringing out the real issues here.

Bill Heroman said...

ANY assembly of spirit-born believers whose conversion was facilitated by other spirit born believers, etc, is descended "genealogically" from the ancient church - because our "DNA" is spiritual.

Aping claims of apostolic succession (which is mere organizational genealogy) has value only for those in need of political power. Feh. Feh on that entire mindset.

So I guess what I'm saying, Mike, is that I like your last question the best. I'm thinking, yes.

Thanks for this post.

andrewbourne said...

Surely apostolicity as a part of the creedal notion has to be important however how can a Church which has departed from the Churches Orthodox and Latin claim to be apostolic to suggest a spiritual or DNA link is not really a genuine argument the patristic Fathers would say that it is the genuine link with the Church founded by the Holy Spirit is the only sure link to apostolicty. As one Patristic writer said those who do not have Church as their mother do not have God as their Father. Soultimately any concept of apostolicity outside the Catholic Church Latin or orthodox is fallacious

Anonymous said...

Bourne: Any church which uses the canon of scripture has a connection with the latin and orthodox churches. Since that same canon was collected to preserve the gospel and serve as a ground work for self-critique within the church, it seems that the protestant churches have taken the logic that gave us the canon and carried it to its conclusion.

Jason A. Staples said...

An additional notion, at least for a number of Evangelical churches (typically of a charismatic or pentecostal perspective), would be the idea that apostles were not just a group of people in the first century but even can include people alive today. So instead of "apostolic succession," this is more of a theology of "apostolic continuity," with no discontinuation of "apostles" throughout church history. The theological or scriptural backing for such a notion can be called into question, but the perspective at least needs to be addressed (and it rarely is) when considering this kind of question.

andrewbourne said...

Sorry but you misunderstand the idea of apostolic in the Nicene Creed the idea that there is a historical link to those sent by Jesus himself is the basis for the Church. Ecclesiology without a historical link to the Early Apostles creates a Church without foundation with the person of Jesus Christ. To say there can be apostles today in the same fashion as those who accompanied Jesus in a phrase `Fantasy Island`.