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2007 Wheaton Theology Conference - “Whence Hermeneutic Authority

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2007 Wheaton Theology Conference

Whence Hermeneutic Authority?

Tony Jones, National Coordinator of Emergent Village

Abstract

Tipp O.Neill famously quipped that .All politics are local.. Maybe so, but the

postmodernists have argued that all hermeneutics are local. It is our local communities

that shape how we see the world, and.as Christians.our ecclesial communities that

shape how we interact with the texts of scripture. Stanley Fish calls them .authoritative

interpretative communities;. we call them .church.. But in what way does the grand

tradition of church history interact with our local iterations of the faith? Does Chalcedon

trump Minneapolis? The emerging church movement offers some insight into how

coming generations will navigate this relationship between old and new, for in an age of

micronarratives, Vincent of Lerins.s exhortation that orthodoxy must .hold fast to what

has been believed everywhere, always, and by all. rings somewhat hollow. Or, maybe,

orthodoxy has always been fluid, dynamic, open source.

I. Introduction: What.s a Strike?

 

For many years, I was a baseball umpire. I started umping before I could even

drive. I.d pick up the big, outside chest protector and mask at the supervisor.s house, then

ride my bike.with the protector on my back.to the ballfield that I was assigned,

somewhere in my hometown of Edina, Minnesota. During my high school years, I umped

hundreds of games, sometime two and three a night all summer. These kids were in Little

League, and the pitching was, as you might guess, highly irregular. But there was a funny

belief among those of us who umped that to wear shin guards was a sign of weakness.

So, I spent many summers with very bumpy and very purple shins.

By college, I had moved up to junior and senior Babe Ruth League games, and by

seminary, I was officiating high school and American Legion ball. I went to Fuller, in

Pasadena, so we umped all year round. Needless to say, umping alongside cops,

firefighters, insurance salesmen, and school teachers was a nice respite from the LaSor

inductive approach to learning Hebrew. During my third year in California, I made it to

the state high school semi-finals, where I saw my first 90 mile an hour fast ball. I don.t

know if that pitcher made it to the Big Show, but the twelve Major League scouts with

radar guns in the crowd sure intimidated me.

Back in Minnesota, I continued to climb the umpiring ladder. Division III

baseball, then D-II, and then, the year of my retirement, my one-and-only Division I

game: in a nailbiter, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers overcame the

University North Dakota Fighting Sioux, 16-2. I umped and third base, and I made one

call all game. I retired that year, after Julie gave birth to our second child and informed

me that she wouldn.t be a weekend widow any longer.

Umpiring on the bases.like that D-I game on third base.is a lot like what a

police officer friend of mine told me. .Being a cop,. she said, .Is 99% sheer boredom,

and 1% sheer terror.. That.s why I volunteered whenever possible, to be the plate

umpire..working the plate. is umpire lingo for it. And that.s a different kind of terror.

A plate ump sees about 300 pitches in a 9-inning game, and he.s got to make a

decision on about half of them. Every pitch, you see, is either a ball or a strike. If the

batter swings at the pitch, then it.s a strike (although, even whether it was a swing or not

is often called into question). If the batter doesn.t swing at the pitch, the umpire has a

decision to make.a very quick decision. If the ball crosses the plate in the strike zone,

it.s called a strike. If it does not, it.s called a ball.

Simple, right? Well, we umpires had to collectively affirm that we interpret the

strike zone according to the .literal, or normal, sense.. (By that I mean, of course, .the

meaning which the writer expressed.. To that end, let me read you the pericope from our

almost-sacred text, the Baseball Rulebook, Rule 2.00,

The Strike Zone is defined as that area over homeplate the upper limit of which is

a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of

the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.

The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is

prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

May Bud Selig add his blessing to the reading of these words.

It doesn.t seem to leave much room for interpretation, does it? Except for that bit

about the batter.s stance at he prepares to swing, it.s there, right there in black-and-white.

You might say, .A strike is a strike is a strike..

Except.when it isn.t.

Here you see the official strike zone, shaded in blue, and the strike zone as it.s

actually called by Major League umps in the gray box. Significantly smaller, low and

outside. Why? Well, baseball has changed a lot since that rule was penned. For one thing,

have you ever tried to hit a 96 mile an hour fastball at the letters? It.s nearly impossible.

And, on the umpiring side of the equation, the move from the bulky outside chest

protectors to the vest protector under the jacket means that umpires crouch lower behind

catchers, lowering their sightline and thus the strike zone. Major League Baseball has

also increased penalties against bean balls in recent years, meaning that pitchers have

pitched more outside pitches, and the umps have given them more of those pitches.

Finally, any umpire will tell you that the eyes of a manager standing in the dugout

are about belt high to the batter in the box. That means the manager has a good gauge of

high balls and low balls.and he.ll start barking at the home plate ump if they look too

high or too low. But he can.t tell if a pitch hits the outside corner, or if it misses by an

inch and a half. I can assure you that no ump likes to see players walk, so we steal strikes

wherever we can. And, it.s easier to steal them outside and inside than it is high and low.

In 2001, Major League Baseball announced that it would be requiring umpires to

get back to the literal interpretation of the strike zone, but that didn.t even last until the

All Star Break. By June, the zone had once again moved low and outside.

Actually, let me put it another way: the Strike Zone was pulled low and outside by

the community of baseball: pitchers and catchers, hitters and managers, umpires and

MLB officials. And, of course, the beer-soaked fans who scream every time an umpire

misses a call.

The hallowed Baseball Rulebook and its myriad interpreters live in a

hermeneutical tension with one another, and that tension has resulted in a de facto strike

zone.a working strike zone. There is no one, single authority who determines the strike

zone.

But, intriguingly, neither has the strike zone slid down the slippery slope into

nihilistic meaninglessness, with umps calling pitches in the dirt strikes. No, the

community of baseball wouldn.t let that happen.

Of course, it.s not lost on me that since the earliest days of the postmodern

conversation, there.s been story floating around about three umpires,

• The pre-modern umpire says, "I call ’em as they are!"

• The modern umpire says, "I call ’em as I see ’em!"

• The postmodern umpire says, "They ain’t nothin’ ’till I call ’em!"

This all stems, it seems, from the irrepressible literary critic, Stanley Fish, who years ago

told this story about the legendary umpire, Bill Klem,

.Klem’s behind the plate,. Fish said. "The pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The

pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The

batter turns around and says, .O.K., so what was it, a ball or a strike?. And Klem

says, .Sonny, it ain’t nothing ’till I call it..

.What the batter is assuming is that balls and strikes are facts in the world and

that the umpire’s job is to accurately say which one each pitch is. But in fact balls

and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire..

[CONCLUSION, TRANSITION.]

Here.s how I plan to proceed: I.ll offer a brief description of the emergent church

movement, based on my intuitions, my personal history, and my research. Then, I.ll

offer some distinctly postmodern philosophical considerations about the nature of the

.orthodoxy. that we have inherited from the ancient church. From there, I.ll offer a

normative theological proposal about the nature of orthodoxy, and I.ll tease attempt to

constructively respond to some of the criticisms of the emergent church with that

proposal in mind. And, finally, I will offer a brief methodological suggestion for the

future of theology, particularly at the local, ecclesial level.

II. What Is the Emergent Church?

First off, the name: Emergent. The tags, .emerging church. and .emerging

leaders. were being used by organizations like Leadership Network in Dallas back in the

late 1990s, particularly as they sponsored some of our early work; under Leadership

Network, we had been called the .Young Leaders Network,. the .Theological Working

Group,. and .Terra Nova.. By 2001, we were out on our own, and felt that we needed a

name, a banner, of sorts, under which we could gather. In May of that year, about six of

us were on a conference call, brainstorming possible names.

Then Brian McLaren, a devoted environmentalist, said, .You know, when a

forester visits a forest to determine its health, she doesn.t climb up into the old growth

trees. Instead, she gets down on her knees and digs around in what they call the

.emergent growth. at the forest floor. In the ecology of the American church, there are

lots of organizations who are tending to the old growth trees, but we seem most interested

in what.s taking place on the forest floor, at the emergent church level..

So, we settled on the name .Emergent. and bought the domain name,

.emergentvillage.org.. And we started connecting with others around the globe who

were examining the same shifts from modernity to postmodernity that had so intrigued us

and had, really, brought us together starting in 1997. The alt.worship crowd in the U.K.

became friends, and we made connections with people in Australia and New Zealand.

The success of Brian.s book, A New Kind of Christian, brought a great deal of attention,

too, and increasingly, Emergent Christianity has become a .brand. of its own, for good

and for ill.

Both Emergent Village, the organization with which I am affiliated, and the

broader emerging/emergent church movement have grown steadily in recent years. But

the growth has not been particularly quantifiable, as other ecclesial movements might be.

In fact, some (like Dwight Friesen) have suggested that church growth in the 21st century

might not reflect the linear, organizational growth structures of the industrial age, but

instead the open source growth typified by the Internet and by pandemic viruses. In open

source.also known as .scale free networks..growth looks more like a non-hierarchical

web, with hubs of potency that, in turn, foment new strands of growth.

Emergent Village surely stands as one such hub in the emergent church, as does

Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Brian McLaren.s books, Scot McKnight.s

.Jesus Creed. blog, and the theological writings of Stan Grenz, John Franke, LeRon

Shults, NT Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, and Miroslav Volf. Other organizations,

seminaries, colleges, denominations, churches, publishing houses, and websites are

quickly becoming hubs in this network as well. But a network it remains, with no desire

to formalize into a bureaucracy that even has the whiff of a denomination. And, in an era

of cell phones, blogs, email, webcams, and instant messaging, many of us question the

need for funneling-type bureaucracies like denominations.

Recently, as a part of the Lilly Endowment-funded Faithful Practices Project at

Princeton Theological Seminary, I visited eight emergent congregations for a weekend.

There, I performed mixed method approach research, including observation of worship

and programs, focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and a survey conducted by all of the

congregations in the late spring of last year. The eight churches surveyed were

Cedar Ridge Community Church, Spencerville, Maryland

Solomon.s Porch, Minneapolis, Minnesota

House of Mercy, St. Paul, Minnesota

Jacob.s Well, Kansas City, Missouri

Vintage Faith Church, Santa Cruz, California

Church of the Apostles, Seattle, Washington

Journey, Dallas, Texas

Pathways Church, Denver, Colorado

Being that I studied just eight churches, my results are necessarily not

generalizable across the spectrum of emergent churches. However, each of these

churches has been recognized as being on the forefront of the movement, so they are

indicative of the general thrust of emergent Christianity.

In the quantitative research, surveys were distributed to all worshipers at all

services at each church last spring. In all, 2020 surveys were returned. The largest church,

Jacob.s Well returned 647 surveys, the smallest, Journey, turned in 34.

Across the board, these eight churches skew differently from the averages across

American congregations. For instance, the average age of worshipers (15 and over) in

church on that Sunday varied from 28 at Journey and 29 at Jacob.s Well to 41 at Cedar

Ridge. The average across all surveys was 32.5. That stands in stark contrast to the

average age of American churchgoers, which is 50.

The eight congregations I studied are overwhelmingly white.92% on the Sunday

in question.

They were 55% female, and 60% single.

American churchgoers are significantly more educated than Americans at large,

and emergent churchgoers are more educated still. 38% report a college degree as their

highest level of education, 17% hold a master.s degree, and 5% have completed a Ph.D.

When it came to the qualitative research, I pursued a phenomenological line of

questioning, and I listened for those common terms by which the interviewees described

their experience of belonging to an emergent church. The common phrases that rose to

the surface during interviews and focus groups were,

• Inviting

• Accepting

• Non-Judgmental

• Inclusive

• .Wherever you are on the journey.

But, intriguingly, almost every reiteration of this theme of openness in the

transcripts is followed by a claim that, .This church really believes stuff, strongly I

mean,. as if my respondents were anticipating the charges of liberalism. But what came

across loud and clear was that these churches are providing a space in which people can

ask their questions about God and the world.a third way, I believe, between the

cocksure certainties of conservatism and the perceived tepidness of liberalism. There is

an attempt, at least, to navigate between these bipolarites.the Scylla and Charybdis of

modernity.into a new territory that maintains both the robust identity of the self but also

respectfully recognizes the otherness of the Other.

As to the question of how big is the emergent church, it.s far too nebulous a

movement to quantify at that level. Our website shows a map of all the Emergent Village

cohorts that meet regularly around the country, so that.s one indication of how wide the

emergent virus has spread. But, I still think that many overestimate the reach and

influence of Emergent, at least to this point in history.

Now, at this point, I might be accused of presenting a sanitized version of

emergent Christianity, so let me tell you a little story to show the other side.

Not long ago, I was having a friendly debate with a prominent evangelical

professor in front of a couple hundred youth pastors. My interlocutor held up a book.

The Post-Evangelical by British pastor Dave Tomlinson.which Emergent Village had

just published in the States. In the book, Tomlinson argues that the church has been coopted

by nation-state governments, particularly concerning their definition of .marriage..

He goes on to describe that, as an Anglican priest, he.s worked with many .unmarried.

couples in London who are actually living more Christ-glorifiying lives than those who

have been officially .married. in the Anglican Church.

Tomlinson then appeals to Karl Barth to argue that the church should reconstitute

.marriage. on biblical, theological, and covenantal grounds, and not allow the

government to dictate what is and is not a marriage.at least not for our ecclesial

purposes. Tomlinson is saying, in effect, that .marriage. isn.t a fact in the world that we

can point to. Instead, .marriage. ain.t nothing till we call it. And in the current cultural

debate over what is .marriage. and .family,. the church should continue to have a strong

voice.

Anyway, back to my debate. My friend held up Tomlinson.s book and warned

people not to buy it and not to read it. .It.s dangerous,. he said, .Don.t buy it!. He went

on to warn the crowd that Tomlinson dangerously relativizes marriage. And then he

really shocked me when he said, .If these Emergent guys get their way, pretty soon we.ll

be having sex with animals!.

What would cause someone to level the charge of inter-species marriage against

the emergent church? Well, it.s become clear that there are a couple of pressing concerns

about the emergent church, and the primary concern for traditional evangelicals is the

spectre of relativism. And it.s into that stew that I.d now like to leap.

III. Philosophical Considerations

The title for this paper, .Whence Hermeneutic Authority?. came to me a couple

months ago after a heated conversation with another evangelical academician. This time

I was teaching a class at a Nazarene graduate school and taken out to dinner one night by

the dean, who was full of earnest and passionate questions about the emergent church.

As the conversation wore on, it became clear to me that his fear was that the emergent

church either already had or inevitably would break free of the grand, 2000 year tradition

of the church because of our apparent disdain for ecclesial authority (historical or

present). Unhinged from the Universal Church, we were destined to become heterodox,

and he feared that would mean the demise of our important movement.

So I got to thinking, how does the emergent church relate to the history of the

church? Well, two noted .texts. came up at that dinner that I think immediately demand

deconstruction.

The first is the quote, often touted by theologians, that was first uttered by

Vincent of Lerins..Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus.. He claimed that

orthodoxy must .hold fast to what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.. I

assume this could be said without irony in the fifth century, but it surely cannot today. If

this is orthodoxy, then there.s no there there. There.s no such beast, and you.ll search in

vain to find it. In fact, I.m surprised that this icon doesn.t show Vincent with one hand

behind his back, with fingers crossed. (What makes Vincent.s claim doubly ironic is that

Vincent himself was accused of Semipelagianism, a .heresy. that surely afflicts the vast

majority of American Christians.)

The Vincentian Canon of universality, antiquity, and consensus is met head on by

the postmodern canon of radical locality, the biases of history, and dissensus. Let.s take

these one at a time: Vincent wrote, .We shall follow universality if we confess that one

faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses..

Postmodernism is, of course, famously characterized by an incredulity toward just such

metanarratives. And our world of blogs and 24-hour news channels show us just how

unreasonable Vincent.s universal vision is, for we see pictures of Anglican bishops in the

global south who won.t even share the Eucharist with the presiding bishop of the

Episcopal Church. And we read reports of Baptists divorcing from one another. Even

the Roman Catholic Church shows constant signs of disagreement (although, notably,

disagreement among Catholics rarely begets divorce, for here, universality is not

necessarily of belief but instead of the spiritual efficacy of the Eucharist).

Vincent continues, .Antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations

which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers.. In this

quest to know the interpretations of the church fathers, friends like Chris Hall and

Thomas Oden have been of great help. But even in the pages of the Ancient Christian

Commentary on Scripture, one finds those hallowed fathers sometimes at odds. Not to

mention all of the brilliant voices of the ancient church who were silenced by those with

bigger theological muscles.we Protestants thank God that others were not silenced,

voices like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Servetus. Oops, strike that last one. To the

claim of antiquity, we who are educated white males.the history writers.are today

chastened by feminist historians (what did the ancient mothers believe?), and theologians

of color (what did the ancient slaves believe?). These silenced voices were not a part of

the Vincent.s venerated antiquity, and their silence haunts our appropriation of ancient

sources.

Finally, Vincent concludes, .Consensus, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we

adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all

priests and doctors.. But Lamin Sanneh argues that we should not quest after an

unrealizable consensus, a Global Christianity, but instead should embrace a World

Christianity in all its mosaic beauty. For, as he writes, as each new indigenous culture

discovers the gospel, they will help us understand it better and see its great beauty.

So, while Vincent exhorts us to hold fast that which has been believed

everywhere, always, and by all, you.ll have about as much luck finding that elusive thing

as you will be hunting Jackalope in South Dakota. No such universal, a-contextual

orthodoxy exists. Instead, orthodoxy is a mess, a beautiful mess.

The second .text. I.d like us to consider took place just a couple years after

Vincent.s death.this is actually an event that I.d like us to read like a .text.: The

Council of Chalcedon (for this, too, came up in my dinner with the dean). In the fall of

451, 500 ecclesial elites gathered to revisit their decisions of two years previous at

Ephesus. Emperor Marcian asked Pope Leo I to preside, but Leo instead sent his legate,

Paschanius, to run he meeting. Pascanius refused Dioscorus a vote at the council, for

Dioscorus had earlier called for the excommunication of Leo. Paschanius reinstated

Theodoret, but the other bishops were so upset by this that Theodoret was made to sit in

the nave of the church with Dioscorus. Marcian then pushed for a new creed, but the

bishops said the old one was good enough.they were more interested in voting on the

excommunication of Dioscorus. But when 13 Egyptian bishops refused to sign

Dioscorus. excommunication decree, all present reconsidered and said, .Maybe we do

need a new creed.. But they couldn.t agree on one. By this time, proceedings were

starting to fall apart, and Paschanius threatened to close the whole council down and

move it to Italy if everyone couldn.t fall into line. Begrudgingly, a majority opinion was

reached on several major issues, including the exile of Diascorus. Immediately following

the close of the council, the Egyptian bishops led the Oriental Orthodox Church to leave

the Catholic Church in a major schism.

They.ll all be appearing next week on the Jerry Springer Show.

But seriously, this was a messy, messy meeting. That.s another way to say that is

was a human meeting. That.s why I can only imagine what Michel Foucault would have

said, had he been in attendance in 451. It.s not to hard to imagine: he would have found

an event laced with the politics of power. That.s what Foucault opened our eyes to, that

power is endemic to the human situation: .Wherever two or three of you gather, power

dynamics will be among you..

And what came out of this messy meeting? Oh, only the standard, orthodox

articulation of Christology. The Chalcedonian creed of the two natures-one person of

Jesus Christ, as well as every other theological construction from every other council, has

human fingerprints all over it. These were messy meetings, rife with power and politics.

What is demanded of us to maintain a resemblance of faith in the face of such

deconstruction? Or, to ask it another way, How can Chalcedonian Christology withstand

the withering assault of postmodern deconstruction? How can it maintain its

hermeneutical authority in a historical-critical age? Every thoughtful confessing

Christian will agree: a robust pneumatology. That is, we will affirm that, regardless of

the human nature of the proceedings at Chalcedon, God.s Spirit somehow guided and

protected that meeting, as well as the other six ecumenical councils. Just as we assert that

the Spirit guarded the canon during its formation over about 400 years.

But how is this reliance on the Holy Spirit.s intervention not a theological copout?

How do we not use the Spirit.s activity as a conversation-stopper when our

hallowed texts and histories are deconstructed?

This is the inherent aporia of orthodoxy, as it is traditionally conceived. Christian

orthodoxy, when defined doctrinally, when seen as a set of beliefs, be it bounded or

centered, is too easily deconstructable. We are left to rely upon logical-postivism and

empiricism to take us as far as it can, then we invoke the Holy Spirit to take us the rest of

the way.

And the aporia of conventional orthodoxy extends to the local congregation. I

know this first-hand, for I have performed this test in numerous congregations I have

studied. First, I read their statement of faith on their website: .At First Christian Church,

We Believe.. Second, I start asking the people who attend that church.even the staff

members.about specific affirmations in that statement; usually by the second or third

person, I hear hesitancy if not outright abandonment about some article in that church.s

creed. Third, I ask myself, .Just who is the We in .We Believe... Churches, of course,

are made up of myriad folks who believe myriad things, regardless of what the senior

pastor or board of elders posts on the church website.

For very many people, spirituality and theology is a journey. They spend their

lives reading books, listening to sermons, and tuning in Christian radio because they want

to be challenged, they want to be poked and prodded to believe and live differently.dare

I say, better.tomorrow than they did yesterday. When accused of changing his mind on

things, Foucault himself retorted, .Well, do you think I have worked [hard] all these

years to say the same thing and not to be changed?. Jim McLendon.s definition of

theology reflects the dynamism of the discipline: .Theology [is] the discovery,

understanding, and transformation of the convictions of a convictional community,

including the discovery and critical revision of their relation to one another and to

whatever else there is..

We in Emergent Village have been asked repeatedly for a statement of faith, a

statement of orthodoxy. I asked LeRon Shults, a theologian now stationed in

Christiansand, Norway, to respond on our behalf, and he wrote a wonder little blog post

about statements and their weaknesses. For Emergent to issue a statement of orthodoxy

would be .unnecessary, inappropriate, and disastrous,. Shults wrote, a response to

.modernist anxieties.. He concluded his post thusly, .Emergent is dynamic rather than

static, which means that its ongoing intentionality is (and may it ever be) shaped less by

an anxiety about finalizing state-ments than it is by an eager attention to the dynamism of

the Spirit.s disturbing and comforting presence, which is always reforming us by calling

us into an ever-intensifying participation in the Son.s welcoming of others into the

faithful embrace of God..

But if orthododoxy can not be summarized in a statement, if what it means to be

an orthodox Christian is not state-able, then what is orthodoxy? It is in answer to this

question that I would like to propose my thesis.

IV. Orthodoxy Is an Event

In his book, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event, Jack Caputo writes,

To think theologically is to make the mind.s ascent toward God, which means

toward whatever event is astir in the name of God, where the name of God is not a

linguistic object that can be stretched out on the table for analysis. To use the

name of God is an unstable, destabilizing act that exposes us to whatever event is

transpiring in that name, to whatever chain of events this name provokes. The

name of God comes first, while thinking theologically comes as a response, the

way one responds to a knock at the door that interrupts your work. Theology

comes in answer to the call that issues from the event harbored in the name of

God, as a way to hear it, heed it, and hearken to it; to pray over it; and to set the

music of this event to words. Theology tries to follow the tracks of the name of

God, to stay on the trail it leaves behind as it makes is way through our lives.It

is a word forged in the fires of life, in the joys and sorrows of ordinary life, a

word we invoke on the most casual as on the most solemn occasions, signaling

something familiar, even commonplace, yet bottomless, always on the tip of our

tongue yet incomprehensible. This is because it shelters an event.

In his forthcoming book, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, Caputo returns to the

idea of event, stating unequivocally that .Events are not names or things but something

going on in names or things.a simmering potency in a name, a possibility that inhabits

the name, what that name is trying to express while never quite succeeding, something

that name recalls but never quite remembers, promises but never quite delivers..

He hearkens to Montaigne, who famously wrote, .O my fellow democrats, there

are no democrats,. and then imagines Kierkegaard standing up in church and saying, .O

my fellow Christians, there are no Christians..

To say that Christian orthodoxy is an event is to say that orthodoxy happens.

(And here, I could just as easily say .Truth Happens,. .Gospel Happens,. or

.Christianity Happens..) Orthodoxy is a happening, an occurrence, not a state of being

or a state of mind or a state-ment.

It.s a move from the ontological.orthodoxy is.to the eschatological.

orthodoxy will be.

To look at it from the side of our weakness, orthodoxy is an event and not a statement

because, to put it colloquially, not one of us will score a perfect 100 on the Big

Theology Exam in the Sky. We.ve all got a little heterodoxy mixed in with all the

orthodoxy.and most of us will admit that. I.m wrong about some things; the problem,

of course, is knowing what parts I.m wrong about. .O my fellow orthodox theologians,

there are no orthodox theologians..

We are, each of us, searching for truth, scratching our way toward orthodoxy. It.s

the land we will never quite reach, but we can.t stop reaching for. I cannot speak of God,

and I cannot stop speaking of God. In the prayer of Meister Eckhart, .God, rid me of

God..

Looking at it from the side of God in the God-human relationship is far more

profound. .Naked Truth,. is the phrase of Pseudo-Dionysius.this is God who is

ultimately .unutterable,. .unknowable,. .invisible,. .incomprehensible.. How does one

speak with any confidence of this God, much less pray with any confidence?

Orthodoxy as event acknowledges apophatic humility in the face of this God; it

acknowledges that all of our theology.our logos about this theos.inevitably falls far

short of what Dionysius calls the .ONE who is beyond all.. It prays with Anselm, .Lord,

you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be thought; you are something

greater than can be thought..

Orthodoxy is an event because God is eschatological. God is the future, and God

calls us into the future. It.s that calling, that messianic promise of future that destabilizes

us and makes the ground sometimes seem to shift beneath our feet. Not necessarily

because God is .changing,. per se, but because God is dynamically involved with

creation, calling us into God.s future.

Orthodoxy as event is most explicit in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of

Jesus. His incarnation was event, his being was event, his ministry was event. He found

those who had been marginalized by the structures of the day.he found them at wells at

noon and climbing trees and chained in cemeteries.and he swept them back into God.s

purposes, all the while promising a Year of Jubilee, and providing glimpses of the

reversals inherent in Jubilee. In him, the paradox was enfleshed: God is here, God is to

come. In him, the world became pregnant with eschatological justice.

The culmination of the event of Jesus. life was the event of the Cross, The Event

on which everything pivots, the event that destabilizes everything and everyone. It both

ends history as the eternal Trinity suffers a breach in its divine relationality and, at the

same time, baptizes history by exhibiting God.s extravagant commitment to the creation.

Myriad human institutions have been built in an effort to promote the cross, but the cross

stands in judgment of all human institutions. Papers are even read at conferences under

the shadow of the cross, papers that are an embarrassment to the cross.

Paul records for us the early Christian hymn:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ

Jesus had:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own

advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human being,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death.

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

This song describes a theo-poetical event. (And here it should be noted that this

hymn was a precursor to the creeds of the early church.they were primarily used

liturgically; they were sung in joy during the event of worship, not nailed to the doorpost

of the domus ecclesiae to act as a gatekeeper.)

And the cross, as event, demands an event from us, a metanoia event. For there is

no orthodoxy out there somewhere, only here, in me and in you and in us when we gather

in Christ.s name. God.s radical commitment to history in the crucifixion eventified the

burgeoning belief of Israel.

V. Turnings

If I may borrow from the syntax of the Savior, let me now circle back to the

emergent church and attempt to solidify our approach to orthodoxy and answer the

questions, .Whence hermeneutical authority?.

You have heard it said that the emergent church values orthopraxy over

orthodoxy, but I say to you, if orthodoxy is an event, then another veil has been torn.

There is no difference between the two. .Orthoparadoxy,. as my friend Dwight Friesen

calls it, is the dialectical tension in which these two poles stand. Let me put it more

boldly: there is no orthodoxy without orthopraxy. It doesn.t exist. People may talk about

it, but they also talk about unicorns.

There is no song until it.s sung.it.s just words and notes on paper. There is no

strike until it.s called by the ump..It ain.t nothing till I call it.. And there is no

orthodoxy until it.s lived. It is an event that happens when we gather to worship, when

we change a diaper, when we read a book, when we present a paper.

You have heard it said that the emergent church vaunts experience at the expense

of rational knowledge, but I say to you that all human endeavors, including theology, are

experiential. If one knows anything about phenomenology, it is obvious that what human

beings do is experience and interpret those experiences. Walking a labyrinth is

experiential, and so is reading a theology textbook. Praying is experiential, as is listening

to a sermon. There.s no such thing as a human endeavor that is not .experiential..we

are experiential beings, and our faith practices, be they cerebral or kinesthetic,

propositional or narrative, are thus necessarily experiential, too.

You have heard it said that the emergent church is run by relativists, but I say to

you that we are all relativists. We walk into the Christian bookstore and choose a Bible

off the shelf, one that.s been translated by a particular group of people with a particular

theological bias. You choose that Bible relative to all the other choices in front of you.

And you make a relative choice about where you go to church, what college you attend,

and whom you marry. Like the umpire who has to call out .Ball!. or .Strike!. a split

second after the ball hits the catcher.s mitt, some calls are easy: right down the heart of

the biblical plate. But others are tougher, painting the outside corner. We make the best

call we can, and live with the consequences.

You have heard it said that emergent churches abandon individual salvation for

the sake of communal life, but I say to you that our communities of faith are made up of

individual rational actors who have chosen to enter communities of orthoparadoxy,

communities where, together, we are figuring out exactly where the strike zone is.

You have heard it said that emergent churches disparage biblical models of

pastoral leadership and opted for egalitarian communities, but I say to you that leadership

comes in many forms. Some charge that by opening up the Bible.even opening up the

sermon.for many voices (including the marginalized) to speak, we are in danger of

heterodoxy because we have forsaken strong biblical teaching. But history is clear: the

danger of heterodoxy, even of cults, is far more acute when biblical interpretation is

solely the purview of on leader or an oligarchy. Let.s put it this way, Jim Jones and

David Koresh weren.t asking people to talk openly during the sermon about what they

agreed and disagreed with.

And you have heard it said that the emergent church doesn.t stand under the

hermeneutical weight of church history, but I say to you that we are more true to the

church fathers because they are part of our dialogue. No, they do not rule over us, but

they do enter into our event of orthodoxy with an authoritative voice. Have you looked at

Luther.s 95 Theses? They.re not about systematic theology, they.re about the very

specific issues of his day. Have you read Augustine.s treatises? They are confronting the

Pelagianism of his day. And Aquinas? The Islamic Aristotelianism of his day. This is

orthodoxy: an ongoing conversation who is God?, who are we?, and what.s the

relationship between us?

Orthodoxy happens. And I can only pray that it.s happening right here and now.

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