Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Protestantism as Church in Exile (part 1)

Karl Braaten in his book Mother Church, suggests that Protestants are in exile, and that the Reformers did not envision or intend to set up an alternative church, but were forced into exile. the musician, singer, monk John Michael Talbot in the late 80's produced an album in which biblical images of exile and return from exile were used to explore the division of Christendom and church unity and ecumenism.
As I recall Braaten did not quite explore the theme of exile in this Biblical note, yet I think this typology may in fact be theologically useful for ecumenists Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.
This reflection is in part personal. It is something of a puzzle to me and some others why as someone who writes icons, studies the Philokalia, reads Orthodoxtheologians as much perhaps more than Protestant or Catholic theologians, who loves the Orthodox liturgy, remains Protestant and doesn't become Orthodox. I am almostthere, why not take that step and leave Protestantism behind? It is a question that I ask myself from time to time.
I think the theme of exile may explain why I feel compelled to live for now as a Protestant ecumenist. My suggestion is that the theme of exile allows for the Orthodox claim to be the Church, that is to be those who have remained in the land of Israel, and for Protestants to claim to be of the Church, even if we say that no one group of us can claim to be the Church. The theme of exile also avoids the problem of claiming that the Church is the sum total of all Christian denominations. I am theologically astute enough and theologicallycritical enough to recognize that not all Christian denominations are created equal. Most protestant groups have considerable lapses in their theology or as with the Covenant tolerate such a greatdeal of theological diversity that all positions held are not in the final analysis theologically commensurate or compatible. I also recognize that unity is not uniformity, there is a certain degree of diversity in Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The point is that I do not believe that the choice I have is between a Christian relativism in which all manner of Christian groups are considered equally right, and simply accepting that what ever faith I have can only be truly of the church if I become Orthodox.
The exile theme fits with my experience of my faith and my encounterwith Rome and Orthodoxy. I am without doubt that I know Jesus Christ that from my Baptism I have had the Holy Spirit and that this was sealed in my confirmation as a young man. Yet, it is also clear to me that the Evangelical Covenant Church, for all that I love it, is not the Church. Yet itseems to be of the church in that it seeks to live out a commitment to Jesus Christ and to live according to the life of the Church and yet it lacks something: We are in exile.
I first heard the ecumenical call as a call to return, this call came before my call to be a pastor. It came in my transition from high school to college. To me true ecumenical efforts were efforts of return. I struggled to understand what this was a return to. At one point I understood it as an individual call that I was to be come Roman Catholic. I obviously did not do so. As I learned more about Eastern Orthodoxy I considered return to be becoming Orthodox. Inow see my call to return as a more of a corporate call, to begin to speak to Protestants (like Braaten is doing) of our being in exile, and begin to talk in Protestantcircles about our returning from exile. I could not (nor could Braaten) speak in this way if it weren't for the WCC and the various and numerous ecumenicaldialogues and concords between denominations of the past 50 to 100 years. Yet we have not begun to really grasp that we are in exile. That our Brothers and Sisters who call us to return to the Church have a point, we are not in Israel.
The other thing about using the biblicaltypology of exile is that it allows for us to identify the cause of Christian divisions as both due to sin and caused by God. Just as God was involved in the exile of the Israelites due to their sin and the sins of their leaders, so we can begin to admit that our divisionsmay be brought about by God but that it was brought about by God as a result of our sins. Return then does not mean to admit that we have sinned more or are more at fault than those who remained, nor does it deny that God has been at work among those of us in exile, but it also means that we should not be content to remain as we are. It also allowsus to admit that God did leave some in the land "To till and care for the vineyard (2 Kings 25:25-27).
IF there is any truth to this use of typology then returning does not mean becoming orthodox, that is pretending like I am not of the church, that I am an unbeliever outside the church, but it also means not claiming to be the Church. The exiles didnot cease to be the people of God, but they also were not what God intended the people of God to be. Those who remained may be in the right place and keep a certainimportant continuity, a means in fact for a return, a connection to the Land. However their remaining does not mean they were more Godly, more in tune with the truth, than those who are in exile. Now by the same token being in exile does not mean being more Godly more in tune with the truth.
Given this suggested typology for comprehending Christians division, my reluctance to become orthodox is not a denial that the Orthodox can claim to be the Church in a way no Protestant as an exile has a right to claim. Rather it is an objection that returning to the Church means becoming Orthodox like any pagan or non-Christian. Also, my return cannot be alone. My call to return to from exile (as I understand it at this point in time) is a corporate call like that of Nehemiah. I am called to bring others with me. The message that Protestants are in exile needs to be articulated prior to my return and my return should not be individual but corporate.


  1. Fascinating! I don't necessarily agree with all of it but parts of it resonate with me - a tip of the biretta to you. Thanks for blogging. You can, if you like, read my view from the Catholic world in my blog.

  2. AW HELL YEAH !! Sorry. I mean, the last paragraph speaks so loudly to me of PROPER witness, which is in fact a proper pride that I belong to Christ. Witness Paul, who said he would "boast" -- boast!! -- of Christ only.

    I TOO will not return to the Church until and unless I can do so as one who HAS followed Christ all these years. To do anything else - to allow myself to be accepted in as only a sinful supplicant convert and not a (sinful supplicant) Christian - would be to deny the very Jesus who died for me.

    Yay Larry!!! If the Orthodox make a way for us, all of us, to come back in this way ... I'll go with you.

  3. Well, I think my point is that by using the type of exile, it is not those who remain that make way for a return, Rather it is God who brings back.
    Also, it means that this isn't a individualist thing.
    I have been realizing that although I could take exception to this or that in Eastern Orthodoxy, this really wasn't what was keeping me. Rather, it is a sense of process and call and a realization that this is a journey I take with others.

  4. Young Fogey,
    I am not sure I agree with all that I have said here either. This post is the beginning of a thought, that I am testing out.
    If you come back and have time maybe you could comment further where you might disagree.
    I did check out your blog.

  5. Thanks for looking at my blog. I wanted to re-read and really think about what you wrote before trying to write an answer worthy of it...

    First of all, we actually have a lot in common. You don't sound like a condescending liberal mainline Protestant minister, a Broad Churchman who believes in nothing therefore everything and so exploits the trappings of the Orthodox tradition for example! No, moved by the Holy Ghost (my guess) through the stirrings of your conscience and your heart, it seems that you know that you are somehow cut off from the Una Sancta, the Catholica, which should bother you, and you correctly see in the Orthodox tradition an (though perhaps not the only) example of that wholeness you seek to be a part of. (Orthodox liturgy and spirituality are marvellously holistic - as good as traditional Roman or Anglo-Catholic praxis but the Orthodox brand has a mystical kick all its own! I am well acquainted with it - I know Russian.)

    Well and good.

    That understanding essentially is behind what I try to do and say - for example I stand with the magisterium on the attempted ordination of women and accept its teaching on the equality but complementarity of the sexes. Everything is subordinated to the goal of that overarching wholeness, of being in the Una Sancta, which I accept on faith as being the teacher of the truth (mater et magistra).

    You remind me of an acquaintance in North Carolina, the only high-church Methodist minister I'd ever met, the Revd Ben Sharpe. When we met I thought he was Anglican and now he is, a priest in the Anglican Mission in America...

    A few points:

    You're right to recognise that your baptism had grace and that you are somehow, though imperfectly, in the Church Catholic as you are. The trouble especially with the Orthodox is that they don't recognise your baptism in itself as real.

    Likewise you're right that your Christian life including your ministry up to now probably have had some kind of grace in them. Even the strictest Orthodox can agree with that... or not (that's their way as you know).


    Is Catholicity limited to the Byzantine tradition?

    As the late Canon Colin Stephenson wrote, is any theory that tries to bypass the Pope satisfactory? (It seems that you've thought about this one.)


    Knowing the truth, that you need the apostolic ministry of bishops to have the real Eucharist, can you in good conscience keep celebrating Communion as a Protestant minister?

    Also, I don't know about the apparently Free Church denomination you're a minister of. Is it Lutheran-based? Something else?

    Salus animarum lex suprema, said by St Thomas Aquinas, is one of my favourite slogans. God understands if for some reason you can't be fully received into the church immediately... but can you stay in that mode indefinitely?

    Finally, corporate reunion between the Catholic world and Protestant churches is impossible. It's only possible between groups that essentially already share the full faith, including the apostolic ministry and the true Eucharist, such as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

    I'm happy that I found your blog, wish you well in your present and future ministry and hope you stop by my blog again. I may well move to Chicago in the next six months so who knows? We may even meet one day.

  6. A few comments of responce that as I have the time I might write another postexpanding on these comments.
    As you have probably figured out by Googling my Denomination is that we are in fact Lutheran in heritage, Swedish Lutheran to be specific. Thus, we do have a memory of Bishops who could claim historical apostolic succession, not unlike the Anglicans. Thus when we split from the Swedish Lutheran church in the US, we had our first pastors ordained by Swedish Lutheran pastors sympathetic to our Lutheran Pietism. I think this heritage and memory is in part ot explain for my puzzeling over our relationship to the Una Sancta.
    In terms of my Baptism I am lead to understand that most Orthodox would speak as you did. At least my orhtodox friends, one lay and one a priest speak as you do.
    The issue of Eucharist is a puzzeling one, for I know that I meet Christ in the Eucharist that Eucharist I recieve among the various portestant groups where I have communioned that I have recieved the food of imortality. I asked to recieve communion when I was five (Covenant churches do not have anything like first communion and when a child takes first communion is usualy between the child the parents and the pastor) because I knew that we recieved Christ in the Bread and Cup. So I am not sure what you mean by "real" Eucharist and the moment I would be convicted about presiding at Eucharist as a protestant would be the moment I would be force to be Catholic or Orthodox.
    I think you may have misunderstood what I meant by "corporate", I do not necesarily mean some sort of recognition say of the Evangelical Covenant Church by the Orthodox or Roman Catholcism. Rather, I simply mean that I am fairly convinced that if my journey is one towards either Rome or Orthodoxy that it cannot be an individual act that disregards the role the Covenat Church and Lutheran Pietism played in that journey. Also, sense that there is more to the schism of the Reformation than Rome or the Orthodox currently recognize.
    and as to the Papacy, it seems that both Rome and Orthodoxy's claims to simply be the Una Sancta are compromised as long as they stand a part from one another.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    The Evangelical Covenant Church's history parallels Methodism's.

    By 'real' of course I mean that having clergy in the apostolic ministry, in the succession, indeed in the Una Sancta (as you know the Orthodox tradition emphasises 'being in the church' more than 'lines of succession'), is the assurance that one in fact has the Sacrament.

    Other ministers acting in good faith probably receive some kind of grace from God, which explains your experiences, but as a Catholic I can't presume to say that they confect the Sacrament nor that the grace they receive is somehow the same as the Sacrament. The latter could be true but who knows? Literally only God.