Peterson and contemporary ecclesiology

In the epilogue to his exchange of letters with Adolf von Harnack published in Theological Tractates, Peterson writes that the conversation with Harnack foundered due to “the character of Protestantism itself, whose presuppositions make it possible for ecclesiastical life to exist without serious relation to dogma and theology, and which can, on the other hand, evolve a theology that ignores the concrete dogmatic problem of a ‘state church’” (23).

While he takes this observation in a direction many of us would find difficult to accept — namely, he believes that only a return to official state sponsorship would make Protestant churches into proper “Churches” again in the sense of being public entities (which the Catholic Church automatically is due to its direct claim of dogmatic authority in continuity with Christ and the apostles) — I do think it raises an interesting problem for Protestant theology that continues to this day. Namely, does Protestant ecclesiology really ever reflect on the actual-existing church? In the context of modern liberal Protestant theology, it seems that the existing state-church arrangements were always treated as a temporary condition, perhaps even a necessary evil — and the task of ecclesiology was to provide a vision for what the church should be.

Harnack himself is emblematic of this approach, and I think it continues also among contemporary theologians who would never call themselves liberal — in fact, whatever Barth intends to be doing with his continual insistence on the necessity of the church (which does seem to have some of the “public” character Peterson wants, if we take the Barmen Declaration as an emblematic moment), it seems that many of his contemporary epigones have pushed it in an “idealized church” direction. There is no real theological reflection on the structure of actual-existing churches, on their polity, their relationship to the state (for instance, recognition as tax-exempt), etc., and meanwhile decisions about the church’s activities and ministries seem to be made primarily on utilitarian grounds (church growth) or on ethical grounds that are only linked to theology in a very superficial way (through a hand-wavy reference to the “teachings” of Jesus).

This idealistic approach to ecclesiology is found above all in those advocating for the “strongest” ecclesiologies — those Anthony has called the “quasi-Catholics,” who claim to want a church that looks just like the Roman Catholic Church but somehow never get around to just joining it. Here we can see to what extent the “church” of academic ecclesiology is and must remain a conceptual construct on the part of the theologian. Even if the theologian comes up with something almost identical to the Roman Catholic Church, actually submitting to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church would miss the point.

For these contemporary theologians — even if they also go to an actual-existing church on Sundays — “the church” is fundamentally a slogan, a way of drawing up battle lines in the theological debate. It is an exercise in building a city in speech, like in Plato’s Republic, and as in the cynical post-Nietzschean reading of Socrates’s project, it always turns out that “the church” is run by people like the theologian. If the theologian is a liberal do-gooder, it turns out that “the church” is fundamentally a motor for social change. If the theologian is a traditionalist — well, lo and behold, it turns out that “the church” is much more focused on doctrine and liturgy!

In this context, we can see that the insistence that theology be oriented toward “the church” is not a concrete proposal with any concrete consequences — instead, it’s a way of marking off the speaker as the kind of person who says that kind of thing. Those who do theology in abstraction from “the church” are often accused of intellectual masturbation, but it is clear that the distinction is not between idle fiddling with ideas and real theological work. Rather, the line to be drawn is between those who fiddle with potentially interesting ideas and those who, by means of “the church,” do nothing but admire their own image in the mirror.

2 thoughts on “Peterson and contemporary ecclesiology

  1. I really enjoyed this post. Although I haven’t read theology in a year or two, I remember being frustrated with liberal Protestant theologians who I always felt appended a section on ecclesiology at the end of their systematics. I often felt like this was a defensive move just so they could avoid being accused of being high-brown academics with no concern for the existing church. The demand for application and the relevance that theological debate must have on the life of the church has always felt so forced for Protestants, especially when 99% of churchgoers don’t give a shit about what theologians recommend. The majority of pastors in America read books by other pastors if they want to know how to run a church.

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