Reading through Principles of Christian Theology part 11: Chapters 17-18

Series Index

Principles of Christian Theology by John Macquarrie

In retrospect, I should have anticipated that a theology that self-identifies as existentialist would be stronger in terms of the Christian life than on the contours of Christian confession.  When John Macquarrie deals with the Bible, with the person and work of Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, and with Christian eschatology, I often found myself disappointed at a writer who was too much a man of his moment, so afraid of sounding “mythological” that he casts away much that makes Christianity a distinctive tradition and even intelligible as a confession.  But when he turns to the character and work of the Church, I find a thinker who takes into account the dialectic between the ideal towards which Church strives and the sin that in any moment continues to characterize Church.

Church for the Dasein Set

Church, for Macquarrie, takes its particular shape from the simultaneous and ongoing divine work of creation and reconciliation (387).  Macquarrie never does abandon his distaste for claims that Christianity brings human beings uniquely into the life of God, but nonetheless he does grant that “In the Church, humanity is being conformed to christhood,” which in this theology’s terms means that Church does point towards the ultimate end and good of humanity.  And that’s something, I suppose.  Macquarrie notes well that the Church is a historical and social reality, making sociological and historical investigations of the Church valid, but the Church’s character as the ongoing incarnation of Christ (389) means that Church will always “burst through” the limits of normal human association (391).

The Virgin Mary is an important figure in Macquarrie’s investigation of Church, both because thinking together about Mary offers a range of Christian traditions a chance to think together about their own relationships to Jesus (393) and because Mary, like the Church more generally, is the locus of God’s act in a way that welcomes and rewards reflection (395).  Ethically, Macquarrie points to Mary as the embodiment of the Beatitudes (396), a person who is poor in spirit, meek, pure of heart, and otherwise the sort of human being who has grown towards christhood.  This theology’s section on Mary is relatively brief, and Macquarrie’s book-length exploration of Mariology is worth a look.

Macquarrie dwells for a while on the creed’s confession of the Church’s nature, and he does well to note that, at any given moment, the Church is “more or less” one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (402).  That Church aspires to those virtues already marks it as a society apart from societies, and there is no need to pretend that Church is flawless in order to confess the central place of Church to Christianity.

Church unity, for Macquarrie, must navigate the narrow pass between mechanistic uniformity and disintegrated liberty (403) if Church is to be a real home and avoid becoming a prison.  Macquarrie points to the worldwide Anglican communion as a promising model for such unity (404) and points to the Bible as a limited but potentially powerful ground for such unity (404-405).  Likewise the Church’s holiness, for Macquarrie, is a matter of the Church being indefectible, not its being infallible (406).  So the mark of the Church’s particular, divinely-ordained place in the world is not an immunity to bad beliefs, bad behavior, or other kinds of badness but the fact that its bad moments remain intelligible as sin and therefore susceptible to divine forgiveness.  Such a view of the Church’s holiness leads naturally to a discussion of catholicity where, true to liberal Protestant principles, Macquarrie warns that excessive emphasis on doctrinal boundary-patrolling denies the real catholicity of the Church, which lies not in properly articulated verbal confession but in a common response to the call of Being (410).  And to touch all the bases, in this theology’s schema, apostolicity names the Church’s continuity in time, the continual striving-for, accomplishment, failure-to-accomplish, forgiveness-for, and redemption-into the three previous realities (410).

Macquarrie’s view of ecclesial authority is as modern and as Protestant as one would expect: whatever power the Church exercises derives from the Bible (417).  Macquarrie acknowledges that the collection of texts that we call Bible emerged from the life of the Church but insists that, in designating a certain body of texts as canon, the Church submitted itself to that canon’s authority.  That said, whatever authority the Bible holds comes from a consensus among the faithful about how the text will function as authority (417).  Because the Church exists as such a dialectic, the duty of theologians within Church will always be to maintain the tension between Biblical and community authority relative to each other and to test the Church at every step, not to come to the defense of everything the Church says or does (418).

Ministry, Laity, and Universalism with Crossed Fingers

When the Church does ministry, that service to neighbor participates in the ministry of Christ (420).  Macquarrie acknowledges a distinction between laity and clergy that is functional and ontological (426), a distinction far stronger than I would have anticipated, and rather than flattening the differences between clergy and laity (as my own American low-church tradition tends to do), Macquarrie insists that the laity as a broader category includes clergy as a segment of laity (421) and that the priesthood of Christ’s followers, which is undeniably universal, nonetheless allows for specialization within that common ministry (423).  Ministry, in this theology, does not evolve as the wild-west days of the early Church give way to a fallen “institutional church” hierarchy; Church and ministry are “equally primordial” (427) as Macquarrie reads things.  On the other hand, Macquarrie has no inclination to isolate one part of the New Testament as the “original” model for ministry, therefore relativizing and ultimately dismissing the variety of polity and struggles-with-polity that one finds in the New Testament and in the early church (431).  Rather, the ministerial life of the Church should have some “ragged edges” (432), resisting the urge to dismiss all difference as departure from the “true” way to be Church.

Such does not mean that Macquarrie defers his judgment on certain ministerial practices.  He strongly advocates the ordination of women (434) and insists that ordained presbyters (whether we call them priests, elders, or something else) should be administering the word and sacrament when the faithful gather (435).  In a modern moment when, even in Macquarrie’s moment, the historical centrality of the Church is waning, Macquarrie sees promise in new kinds of ministry alongside the parish (438) but insists that the faithful still need bishops so that those new to the faith receive proper instruction (439).  As I said at the outset of this post, Macquarrie’s sense of Church as an ongoing and continuous and disputed and intelligible is one of this book’s strongest suits.  He strongly urges that ministers from various Christian traditions find common ground together, not only in attempts to acknowledge each other’s church government and through common worship but also through the practice of theology itself (440-441).

Macquarrie closes this chapter with a discussion of evangelism and missions, and he acknowledges at the outset that the universalism that he has espoused throughout the volume creates certain problems for imagining what Christians do when we proclaim the Kingdom of God (442-443).  Ultimately his answer is to quit proselytizing but continue to think of ourselves as on a mission from God (445), working alongside Muslims and Buddhists and such and “advancing to the same goal by different routes” (446).  Those of you who have been reading and listening to me for a while know that I don’t find such a formulation remotely satisfying; if one wants to abandon the long-standing sense of proclaiming a kingdom that subverts and displaces other kingdoms, then call what you’re doing humanitarian aid or general amiability or something else, but don’t pretend that you’ve not abandoned one of the core practices of Christian piety.  Such is not to say that one must spend all of one’s time denouncing Islam or speculating about the eternal souls of hypothetical island-dwellers, but however one relates to one’s Buddhist and Hindu neighbors, one should be honest about who “I” am when “I” live with “you.”

 

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