Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Position Paper: Ecclesiology and Eschatology

The following is the fifth and final position paper for my systematic theology class, on ecclesiology and eschatology.

I affirm, with the Nicene Creed, that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] In the first place, this means the Church is one, a unity. I believe this unity is visible and organic, not just invisible and spiritual. That is, the Church, the Church Christ founded in the first century, has not split into pieces or grown into multiple "branches", all of which can be considered to be part of the true Church, over time. This unity is based on the unity of God and of those who are in Christ. In Christ, the many members of the Church are reconciled to God and each other, united into one body (Rom 12:4-5, Col 1:18-20) by the mystery of the sacrament of communion, by which we all become partakers in the singular body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16-17), as well as by baptism and the indwelling of the one Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 12:12-13) So the apostle is able to say of the Galatians that "in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. ... you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:26-28 RSV) I define the Church by this biblical teaching rather than by empirical observation which suggests that it is diverse and divided.

The understanding of the unity of the Church as being merely spiritual in nature is thus unacceptable. It does not do justice to the incarnational nature of the church as both a divine and a human institution, just as the Lord, while fully God, also became fully human for our sake. Instead, it creates a division between the Church's two natures and holds that unity applies only in its invisible nature. In this it is an echo of the old heresy of Nestorianism, which imposed a sharp distinction between Christ's human and divine nature.[2] Bishop Timothy (Kallistos) Ware explains that the separation between the visible and invisible church is only a reflection of our limited human perspective; the body of Christ is a single, incarnational reality just like Christ himself.[3] The unity of the Church is not merely an ideal to strive after; it is a promised and ever-present reality. Through historical study and a long period of spiritual seeking, I have come to identify the Orthodox Church as the same church that Christ founded.

Second, the Church is holy. This holiness is based on God's perfect holiness and is not dependent on the holiness of its members, least of all its imperfect earthly members. This view has been firmly established at least since the fourth-century Donatist controversy, when it was argued by Augustine.[4] This holiness is very much an "already-not yet" reality; mysteriously fully present and yet not fully realized in us. The apostle John says something similar: "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." (1 Jhn 3:2) We are already God's children, but what we will ultimately become in him is not yet clear. Just as we partake in the body and blood of Christ through the Church, we also participate in his holiness through the worship, sacraments, fellowship, and prayer life of the Church. Titles for the Church like the people of God (2 Cor 6:16), bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2), and temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17, 6:19; Eph 2:21-22), as well as the body of Christ, all hint at the holiness in which all in the Church have a share.

Third, the Church is catholic. This is a frequently-misunderstood term, and not just because it is often seen as synonymous with "Roman Catholic" (as I used to think). It is often taken to mean "universal", as referring to the nature of the one Church as extending through time and space. While this is true of the Church, the word "catholic", as originally used, means "full and complete, all-embracing, and with nothing lacking.[5]" This can be seen from its Greek composition from the roots kata and holos, meaning roughly "according to the whole". This means, among other things, that the local church is not simply a piece of the true Church; the fullness of the entire Church is found in every single local church; nothing is lacking for its members to participate in the richness of the faith. As Paul says, the Church "is [Christ's] body, the fulness of him who fills all in all." (Eph 1:23, see also Col 2:10).

Fourth, the Church is apostolic, in at least three ways. Most simply, it began with the apostles. It is the Church established by Christ on the apostles' testimony to him. Second, it preserves the apostolic teaching of Christ, which was originally received from Christ (Mat 28:18-20) and is especially expressed in the New Testament. The Church receives, treasures, and passes on the apostolic tradition as described in the NT (1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 2 Tim 2:2). In this way it is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." (1 Tim 3:15) Third, like the apostles themselves, the Church is sent into the world with a mission (the Greek word apostolos means "sent one"), "to bear witness to His Kingdom, to keep His word and to do His will and His works in this world."[6] In this respect, the Church, and we individually as members of it, continues the work that Christ commissioned the apostles to do.

Related to the second meaning, the continuity of the faith of the Church with the apostles' teaching can be seen in the process of apostolic succession, by which the teaching is passed down in an unbroken chain of leadership stretching from the apostles to the present. This idea was argued by the pre-Nicene church fathers to rebuke false teachers who based their ideas on their own reading of Scripture or a "secret tradition" that Christ passed on apart from the apostles. Irenaeus, the most revered theologian of the second century, was a prominent spokesman for apostolic succession, writing in his work Against Heresies, "It is within the power of all ... to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about."[7] Like the early Church, I see the episcopal model of church polity as normative, since the role of bishops (overseers) was and is crucial to the preservation and articulation of orthodox Christian teaching.

I affirm the infallibility of the Church—the whole Church. "This again follows from the indissoluble unity between God and His Church. Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot err, and since the Church is Christ's body, since it is a continued Pentecost, it is therefore infallible."[8] Again, the apostle teaches that the Church is the "pillar and bulwark of the truth." (1 Tim 3:15) As well, Christ promised the Spirit to guide the Church into all truth. (Jhn 16:13) This teaching is frequently misunderstood. It does not mean that any individual within the visible Church is infallible, as Roman Catholics would claim. It also does not mean that the Church cannot hold mistaken points of view or opinions; for example, the Orthodox Church is currently considering the possibility that it may have been mistaken about the heretical status of the Oriental Orthodox churches for the past 1500 years. (That is, that they may not actually hold the view on Christology that was condemned by the council of Chalcedon) It also does not mean that large portions of the Church cannot fall into false teaching, as was seen in the Arian controversy. The infallibility of the Church pertains to dogma, particularly the canons of the seven ecumenical councils as well as lesser councils or other teachings that are later accepted by the whole Church. In matters like these, I believe that according to the promises of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for the whole Church to embrace error.

I affirm the function of the Church, as a place where the salvation of the gospel of Christ is made manifest. This occurs through the worship of the Church directed to God, the participation of its members in riches of God's grace, and the outward-oriented ministry of the Church to the world. In worship which transcends time and place, the Church joins the angels and "the spirits of just men made perfect", the Church of all ages and places, in their unceasing praise of God (Heb 12:22-24). Through the Church, we enter communion with both God our father and our brothers and sisters in Christ; again, we all become part of the one body of Christ. "We are members one of another" (Eph 4:25); it is in the Church, not individually, that we receive salvation and are transformed into Christ's likeness. "The church thus serves not only as a signpost of the coming fulfillment of divine purposes with and for the whole creation but as a manifestation of that fulfillment 'ahead of time', as it were—already in this age, yet fully to come in the eschaton."[9] Though salvation is a lifelong journey, through the Church we experience it in eschatological fullness, so that Paul is able to speak of the whole path of salvation in the past tense. (Rom 8:29-30) And again, the Church is apostolic in that it is sent out into the world both to witness to Christ (Acts 1:8) and to demonstrate the love of Christ through practical action as well as words. (1 Jhn 3:17-18)[10]

I affirm that the Church is the continuation and fulfillment of national Israel as the people of God. Through Christ it inherits the promises made to Israel. Paul argues extensively for the Church's continuity with Israel repeatedly in Romans (2:28-29, 3:28-31, 4:11-12,16,18, 9:7-8, 10:12); elsewhere he says "There is neither Jew nor Greek ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28) It is not that God's covenant with Israel has been revoked (Paul argues this extensively in Romans 9-11); rather, this covenant is fulfilled in all that it set out to accomplish in the new covenant in Christ's blood, plus the promised salvation of the gentiles. (Isa 52:10) Therefore, since Christ is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), it is advisable to interpret Paul's words about the continuing future of Israel in Romans 11 as presaging a large-scale conversion of Jews into the Church.[11] There is no other way leading to salvation.

I deny that the Church consists essentially of a collection of individuals who are "saved", have an "authentic relationship with God", are "true Christians", etc. My definition of "Christian" is dependent on the Church, rather than the other way around. The Church is the incarnational institution established by Christ, which preserves the apostolic faith truly witnessing to him, and they are Christians who belong to it. There is definitely a sense in which Christians are seen as constituting the body of Christ, but as members of it. (1 Cor 12:27) In other words, when we become Christians, the Church does not expand to include us; we become part of its unity. The unity of the Church amid divisions among its members depends on there being something recognizable as the "Church" that continues whole even after schism, which is not possible if the Church is nothing more than a collection of individuals.

It is frequently said that "outside the church there is no salvation." Does this mean that everyone who does not formally belong to the "true church" is not saved? By no means! Just as those who are formally members of the Church can still be living according to the law of sin and death, dead to the life of the Church,[12] "there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone."[13] I do not claim that God's grace is limited to those within the Orthodox Church; I don't fully understand the mysteries of his love. But this does not mean that the "true" Church is invisible or discontinuous from the visible Church, or that it is not necessary to seek salvation through it. "What God may do should not become the outer perimeter of what humans should do."[14]

I affirm (again with the Creed) that Jesus will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. He will return the way he left the disciples (Acts 1:11) to judge the nations (Mat 25:31-33). The kingdom of God, currently present only within the Church, will triumph over and succeed the kingdom of this world (Rev 11:15), and this kingdom, Christ's kingdom, will be eternal. (Luk 1:32-33) Everything beyond the creedal statement is opinion. One of my opinions of this judgment (shared widely by Orthodox theologians) is that I don't interpret Matthew 25:31-33 literally, that we will wait in line with everyone who has ever lived to be sorted by Christ as judge. Rather, "the very presence of Christ as the Truth and the Light is itself the judgment of the world."[15] As Jesus teaches in Matthew 25, we will be judged based on how we have fulfilled the law by loving and serving others (Rom 13:10), or, equivalently, by how we have loved and served him. (Mat 25:40,45)

I deny that God actively imprisons or tortures people in hell. The judgment is our response to Christ's return in glory, not a literal proclamation by him of our individual fate. We are not "sent" to heaven or hell by any external power, but by our own hearts. Thomas Hopko explains: "Now men can live without the love of Christ in their lives. They can exist as if there were no God, no Christ, no Spirit, no Church, no spiritual life. At the end of the ages this will no longer be possible."[16] I believe that the essence of hell is not being banished from the presence of God (which would be a relief for those who hate him, appears to consider God's presence in quasi-spatial terms, and which, if applied consistently, would simply be annihilation), but continuing to exist eternally in the presence and knowledge of God. For the righteous, this is heaven, for the wicked; it is the torment of hell. The fire of hell is none other than our God, the consuming fire. (Heb 12:29)

I affirm that we cannot know when Christ will return, as he makes clear. (Mat 24:36, 25:13; Mar 13:32; Luk 12:40; Acts 1:7) Though much about the eschatological day of the Lord is obscure, the Scriptures make very clear that Jesus will return at an unexpected time. (How this will work when one group or another always seems to be expecting his imminent return, I don't know!) Any teacher or sect that claims to have knowledge of the day of Christ's return is either lying or deluded, and refuses to listen to the teaching of Scripture about this. The truth is, Christ could return tomorrow or he could return in centuries. We cannot know one way or another. Hence, Jesus teaches us to be ready (Mat 24:42-51), to live in a state of readiness. This readiness does not look like stocking up and preparing for an imminent and expected disaster, but like actively practicing the teachings of Christ, living the life of the Church in a constant vigil so as to greet the Lord at his return.

I affirm (once more with the Creed) the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, as especially taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. The resurrection will be the completion of the salvation from sin and death that Christ purchased for us. It will be a bodily (not just spiritual) resurrection, but not a return to our mortal bodies. Rather, our once-weak bodies will be raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (rather than physical, whatever that means. (1 Cor 15:42-44) In this, as in the rest of salvation, we will follow the example of Christ, "the first-born from the dead". (Col 1:18) The resurrection of the dead will be the Lord's ultimate victory over death (1 Cor 15:54-55) and will also be accompanied by the perfection of the rest of the creation (Rom 8:21). The world will become the paradise that God created it to become; the kingdom of heaven will fill the whole earth. (Rev 11:15) God's good purposes for his wayward creation will be completed, for all eternity.

I deny that the goal of eschatology is to discern a hidden schedule of events that will take place in the "end times". The subject of eschatology may be described with language like an "eschatological agenda"[17] or even "God's timetable".[18] This linear kind of thinking, which risks over-focusing on the order of events a the exclusion of their deeper meaning, simply misses the point of eschatology. The point is Christ, who is the true End we look to. (Rev 22:13) "Wherever He is present, there the End is also present."[19] In other words, the End is not some series of events to look forward to in the future—for those in the Church, the End is already here!

Thus Paul is able to speak of our deliverance to the kingdom of the Son in the past tense (Col 1:12-13), and our resurrection with Christ and elevation to the heavenly places. (Eph 2:4-6) As he says elsewhere, "behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor 6:2) The End is not simply waiting at the conclusion of history for us; for Christians, it is an eternal now, as if intersecting with every point on our time line at a right angle from the transcendent beyond, calling us out of the linear succession of moments that seems so natural to our existence and into eternal life. Thus, I disagree with the tenor of eschatological theories about the "rapture" the tribulation, the millennium, and the nature and relative ordering of these things, especially inasmuch as they are presented as what the study of eschatology is "really about". They are highly speculative (sometimes approaching conspiracy theories) and needlessly distract from the fact that the End has already come. Glorify him!

  1. "The Nicene Creed" in The Orthodox Study Bible (eds. Jack Norman Sparks et al.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1791.
  2. Patrick Barnes, The Church is Visible and One: A Critique of Protestant Eschatology (12 January 2015), 30.
  3. Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 243–245.
  4. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 311.
  5. Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, (12 January 2015), I.2.16.
  6. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, I.2.16.
  7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Kindle Edition: Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2012), III.3.1.
  8. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 248.
  9. James R. Payton Jr., Light from the Christian East: An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2007), 150.
  10. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 972–974, 978–979.
  11. Erickson, Christian Theology, 965.
  12. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, IV.1.9.
  13. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 248.
  14. Payton, Light from the Christian East, 171–172.
  15. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, I.2.14.
  16. Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, IV.8.2.
  17. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1119.
  18. Erickson, Christian Theology, 1095.
  19. Stephen Freeman, "Is There a Christian Theory of History?", Glory to God for All Things 7 November 2014, <> (16 January 2015).

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