Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

URC Sexuality Debates: an Ecclesiological Reflection July 31, 2012

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In this dissertation we will examine the United Reformed Church (URC) “human sexuality debates” between 1994 and 2007 with a view to understanding what kind of body the URC is, from an ecclesiological perspective. That is to say the course and outcomes of these discussions and decision making processes, centred on the question of whether it is appropriate to ordain to ministry individuals in homosexual relationships, will be analysed not to determine the correctness or otherwise of their substantive content or conclusions but rather to gain insight into the nature of the URC.

This methodological “bracketing” of the substance is invited by the inconclusive nature of the outcome, which has caused some within the denomination to regard the debates as a failure. This is not the conclusion drawn here. Rather we will see that it is possible to take a more positive view of the approach the URC has arrived at on this question as true to the intentions of its founders.

This will require us to examine both the wider story of the URC’s foundation in 1972 as its subsequent evolution. This is justified by the necessity of understanding this context to make the case that is here made about the significance of the sexuality discussions. Central to this dissertation is the suggestion of a deep continuity between this particular debate and the nature of the URC as a united denomination. This continuity is one that, as we shall see, has been noted elsewhere and evaluated differently.

The relatively positive evaluation proposed here depends on a set of ecclesiological ideas that can only be stated rather than fully defended within the constraints of a dissertation primarily devoted to the analysis of a set of events within a single denomination. However a chapter is devoted to such statement and focusses on questions regarding what here is described as “denominationalism”. This is the ecclesiological approach that believes that the Church catholic is divided into a set of denominations, each of which can legitimately claim to be part of the Church. This belief inevitably raises problems about how to understand the relationship between Church and denomination and it is there questions that are considered below.: Is each denomination a fully functioning church? How do denominations relate to one another? Should we see them as having distinct roles and if so how do we articulate these with one another? How are sin and providence to be discerned in the evolution of denominations? How is the history of the connected to that of the societies within which it is placed and with salvation history?

It is not possible to give an adequate answer to even one of these questions here but neither can they be ignored. The conclusions I have drawn depend on ecclesiological premises that are not universally or even widely shared and which therefore need to stated and defended.

Inevitably there are many loose ends and questions begged by this dissertation. Some of these are raised in the conclusion and tentative suggestions made about the directions in which further thinking on them could proceed.

Chapter 1 (here): an account of the URC “human sexuality debates” between 1994 and 2007 seeking to defend the decision not to decide as expressing the URC’s denominational commitment to unity as a precondition for Christian truth.

Chapter 2 (here): brief history of the URC and reading of the Basis of Union arguing that it was never meant to be a permanent denomination but rather to be an ecumenical project. For this reason uniformity of belief or practice was less important than a common commitment to unity. Recent attempts to consolidate a denominational identity are analysed and criticised.

Chapter 3 (here): this account of the URC is put in the context of a more general ecclesiology of a Church divided into denominations. It is argued that this division reflects both the nature of modernity as a historical period and human sinfulness. The paradox of a denomination committed to the end of denominations is justified by recourse to the interplay of eschatology and a doctrine of providential governance.

Chapter 4 (here): seeks to synthesise the historical and ecclesiological material from the previous chapters to argue for an understanding of the URC as a denomination called to repent of denominationalism and hold up a symbol of unity to a divided Church.


Our conclusion, then has been that the URC has as its task the proleptic representation of the eschatological Church in its oneness, a full and transparent unity unachievable except by the grace of God and bound up with the promise of the renewal of all creation in which the Church’s holiness, catholicity and apostolicity is also involved. This future eschatological fulfilment has been shown to exist in tension with the task of the Church of being the agent of the already completed salvific work of Christ, who has redeemed it through his mission on earth.

This tension is expressed in the existence of the Church through Christ’s presence in its preaching and its sacraments while simultaneously the Church, as sinful, fails to be fully present in time and space. It is this already and not yet of the Church that demands of it a repentant self awareness and continuous striving towards its goal, a goal only realisable through God’s gracious action, an action that is again at once present in the mysteries of the Word preached and the Sacraments administered as well as awaited in the hope of the faithful.

Essential to our argument here has been the idea that the fullness of the Church’s presence in history requires its disintegration, that the realisation of each aspect of its mission precludes, this side of the eschatological moment of Christ’s return, the realisation of other aspects. This “division of labour” (analogous to that between the Church and the civil authority in Luther’s Two Kingdoms) between denominations also requires of them that they adopt ecclesiologies that align to the self-understanding appropriate to their vocation.

This dissertation is written from within the denominationalist ecclesiology appropriate to the self-consciousness of the URC as an ecumenical project. I do not claim, though, that this ecclesiology contains or appropriates others. It has its truth in the recognition of division as at once within the Church and damaging to it, as not excluding those who meet the criteria set for the presence of the Church despite the sin of division but yet holding them to account for it. The limit of the validity of this way of thinking is when it turns back on itself in assessing what justifies the continuing existence of the URC.

In so far as it attempts to consolidate itself as a permanent and self-identical ecclesial institution it ceases to repent. In so far as it does not it has no justification other than the proclamation of that repentance. Such a bind is sustainable only because the denomination and the churches and other units that are within it are not identical. Local churches, community projects, educational institutions and other URC bodies have their own vocational integrity within the mission of the Church.

The future of the URC is uncertain but its founding impulse to repent of division and strive for unity will remain an inescapable element of authentic Christian discipleship until God acts to make all things, including the Church, new.

At the same time there are a range of problems with this perspective that must be acknowledged: in focussing on the distinct vocation of the denomination it runs the risk of losing sight of fundamental characteristics of the Church without which the denomination would lose its ecclesial status; there are difficulties about the self-consciousness of the denomination, it did not reach the conclusions it did through adoption of the ecclesiology proposed; and crucially, the content of the arguments has been neglected and would be seen by many of the participants to be more important than the matters brought to the fore here.

The question of holiness and sanctification, of the new life in Christ, is a crucial one in the present context. This features in the URC’s Basis of Union but only fleetingly and without substantial development. In Clause 11 the Church’s offering of itself to God and the reception of the renewing life of the Holy Spirit are briefly stated as central to the purpose of the Church, in Clause 17 it is affirmed as part of the statement of faith that we believe ourselves to receive newness of life and in the ordination vows ministers promise to live a holy life. None of this, though, has the same prominence as oneness. It is very much as if the URC has taken the fourfold Nicene formula, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” and taken the first as determinative of the others.

This approach can only make sense if either one takes as a maxim that unity is a precondition for all else (and often URC documents can appear to be saying just this) or one accepts that one’s own ability to be Church is limited and one must accept the task assigned while repenting of the inability to address the others (the approach argued for here). In so doing one runs the risk of giving up too much and ceasing properly to represent or participate in the Church at all. Further reflection on the nature of holiness would require exploration of the place of ethics in wider Christian discipleship, especially as it manifests in corporate ecclesial life. Such exploration is beyond the scope of this dissertation and would need to take account both of the classical Reformed concentration on the idea of covenant as constituting community and on the tensions between a common secular ethic understood with Luther as reflecting natural law and on the special ethical demands of the gospel.

Related to this difficulty with the relative weight of oneness and holiness is that of the self-consciousness and self-understanding of the denomination. It is sometimes suggested that the URC’s position on ordination of homosexuals is a “fudge” driven by the institutional rather than theological imperative to maintain the integrity of the organisation. Such an interpretation is not incompatible with the evidence and may indeed have been a motive of some or all of the participants. In arguing from a view of providential governance in the constitution of the denominational Church, though, I have suggested that the motives and thoughts of the participants are not necessarily the final consideration in understanding how events unfold. These motives should be analysed and understood and judgements formed about them but it is also appropriate to develop another way of seeing what happens that seeks for the meaning of events in light of the idea of a teleology beyond the scope of conscious human agency. Such a thinking of the interplay of human self-determination and providential guidance would be required to test the plausibility of the ecclesiology of denominationalism proposed here.

Finally it must be acknowledged that while a defence of the URC’s decision not to decide can be mounted, a refusal to resolve ethical questions (or questions of holiness) cannot ultimately be satisfactory, nor can their deferral to the eschaton be an excuse to evade them indefinitely. While I would argue that the replacement of faith in Jesus as saviour by an ethical system is one way Christianity can fail to be itself I would not endorse an antinomian rejection of all temporal moral judgement.

The realm of ethics, and especially sexual ethics, is one that causes profound polarisation in the contemporary Church and this cannot be wished away by appeal to the right to disagree. That there is a moral truth grounded in God’s will is essential to Christian teaching and apophatic denial of our ability to discern the truth fully does not absolve us from the duty to strive to discern and to obey God’s will, however that may be made known to us. In the present context this requirement is expressed through the determination that the differences within the URC not be ignored, suppressed or worked around. It is the duty of all concerned to express their positions with integrity and clarity and strive to live accordingly while remaining open to hearing that of those with whom they disagree. Our faith must be that the guiding of the Spirit will, in time, enable us to find and to follow the call to the holy life we promise to live.



The URC’s vocation is to repent of its existence (Dissertation draft 2 introduction) July 18, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick Brindley @ 2:48 pm

My dissertation will review the inconclusive debates of the United Reformed Church (URC) on sexuality and ordination since the mid-1990s in the context of the constitution and history of that denomination since 1972 in order to discern what they reveal about its nature. This review will be placed in the context of an ecclesiological reflection on what it is to be a “denomination” which will argue that such reflection is essential to the understanding of the contemporary Church. The conclusion will be that the particular vocation or task of the URC, on behalf of the Church catholic, is repentance for the sin of division and representation of the eschatological unity of the Church.

The explicit prioritisation of unity will be shown to be a consistent feature of the URC’s discussion of the various issues raised by the question of whether to ordain individuals in homosexual relationships, the key issue at stake in its debates. On the nature of Biblical authority, the place of authority in the Church, and on the meaning of “holiness” in regard to ordained ministry insufficient agreement was found to enable the denomination to come to a clear view. Instead means were found, enabled by the particular mixed polity of the URC, to preserve its institutional integrity despite opposing views on all these matters.

I will argue that this prioritisation of unity can be seen to be continuous with the formation of the URC as an ecumenical project oriented to repairing the divisions as a central part of the realisation of God’s plan for the Church. The URC’s constitution is less concerned with finding agreement as a means to unity than with establishing unity as a response to God’s call for the Church to be one. Taking the Nicene formula, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” as a mandate and prescription the URC’s founders believed that until the Church was one it would be in a state of sin, making holiness, catholicity and apostolicity beyond it.

In seeking to support and develop this contention we will examine the ecclesiology of a Church divided into denominations. It will be suggested that the denomination is the Church form typical of modernity. The Church has responded to the challenges of the modern world by adapting to its specialisation and differentiation, taking these into itself via the fragmentation into denominations. Further it will be argued that while this phenomenon is distinctively “modern” it is the working out of a dynamic inherent in Christian eschatology, the dynamic tension between the already and the not yet of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Chapter 1 will read the documents of the URC “sexuality debate” from 1994-2007, especially the 1999 and the 2007 GA Reports which mark the two crucial decision points at which the denomination decided not to decide, in the first case because no effective majority could be mobilised in the second as a matter of positive intent. The ways in which difference and disagreement is handled in the two documents we will observe to revolve around the imperative to remain united, seen as a precondition for the discernment of God’s will.

In Chapter 2 we will trace this theme in the URC’s history and especially in the 1972 Basis of Union that functions as its constitutional core. It will be shown that as an ecumenical project self-consciously repenting of division the URC neither has nor can have unity around a truth, rather it upholds unity part of the truth of God’s will for the Church. It will be shown further that more recent attempts to find or create a more concrete ground for the denominations unity have failed and that the yearning for the Church to be one is the core of its life.

In Chapter 3 this will be assessed in light of an ecclesiology of the divided church. It will be argued that in acting as God’s people in a world still awaiting the return of Christ in glory the call to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” creates tensions within the Church and between the Church and the rest of the world that are manageable only through a “division of labour” in which different denominations represent or undertake different aspects of the Church’s mission. This is interpreted as an aspect of the eschatological tension between the realised Kingdom of our redemption and the coming Kingdom of Christ’s recognised and completed Lordship over all creation. Recent ecclesiological reflection on denominationalism is drawn on and also criticised to support this argument.

In the final chapter we return to the story of the URC in the light of these ecclesiological reflections to attempt a further specification of the vocation of the URC. In particular we observe that as an ecumenical project the URC has a peculiar ecclesiological self-consciousness, which gives it an especially penitential character. It describes itself as “repenting” of the sin of division in the Basis of Union and given its continued existence as a separate denomination it has a difficult and troubled relationship to its own being. It perpetuates and exemplifies the sin for which it repented in its founding. Furthermore given the limits of what it can achieve even its own closure would not make a material impact. Its vocation thus becomes one of living in representative repentance for the sins of the Church catholic (itself included). Such a vocation can make sense only through a denominationalist ecclesiology of which the URC is the institutional embodiment.


Dissertation Chapter 1 (Draft) – Towards a denominationalist ecclesiology June 5, 2012

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Chapter 1: Denominationalist ecclesiology

“Denomination” is an ecclesial category that has suffered from theological neglect. One recent study has described it as an “ecclesiological aporia” suggesting that neither theologians nor the denominations themselves have articulated a satisfactory answer to the question of the nature of a denomination [Ensign-George]. Here an attempt is made to develop an answer to that question that goes beyond the merely historical and empirical to give a systematic account of why the Church is divided into denominations, their relationships to one another, the sense this makes from the perspective of salvation history and the implications for the self-understanding and practice of existing denominational institutions.


In brief it is argued that no existing ecclesial formation can legitimately claim in itself be the “one church, holy, catholic and apostolic” in which Christians believe. Neither is it enough to say that we can have “reconciled diversity” or “unity in diversity”. Our continuing divisions and disagreements between and within our communions are expressions of the fallen state of creation, of the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Within that all Christians have the task of discerning their vocation within God’s redemptive work. This applies to denominations, too. Their existence reflects the variety of the work the Church has still to do and its inability to bring this variety into a single eschatological whole.

Denomination as an ecclesiological category

Recent thinking has begun to identify and respond to the gap that exists in ecclesiological reflection on the category “denomination”. Particularly notable is the 2011 volume Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category in the series Ecclesiological Investigations. In it is reproduced an influential 2008 paper by Barry Ensign-George, “Denomination as Ecclesiological Category” along with a series of responses by theologians from most of the main Christian traditions, from Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, through Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed, to Baptist and Pentecostal and including Methodism and a Quaker.

This ambitious attempt to establish and explore a systematic ecclesiology of denomination is an important contribution and advances the debate significantly beyond the purely historical and sociological perspectives that have dominated discussion of this category previously. [footnote referencing literature] While no consensus is established and Ensign-George’s proposals are here found to be deficient in some important respects they are a major step forward and repay close attention.

Ensign-George offers an account of denomination as “a structured entity between congregation and church … contingent, intermediary, interdependent, partial and permeable” [Ensign-George]. These five characteristics define it as creating structures which while real are, in principle dispensable and which recognise and affirm the reality both that other structures are possible and legitimate and that movement between them is allowable. It further implies recognition that the Church catholic is not, even in principle, reducible to the denomination in question.

Ensign-George’s own account of the creation and reproduction of these structures draws on the previously dominant account of American historical circumstance and hence, implicitly, of an exceptional set of circumstances [footnote referencing Richey] while moving towards one that sketches both a comprehensive historical account of “modernity” and a theology of “superabundance” which draws on the Genesis account of the origin of the nations to claim that God intends diversity and difference. [referencen to Genesis section]

The diversity and mutual interdependence of denominational forms of church life and practice are thus placed in the context of a complex (modern) social setting which it turn is set (providentially) in the story of God’s dealing with humanity in creation interpreted as affirming and working through difference. [reference to “modernity” section]

Ensign-George is careful to recognise that not all Christians recognise the legitimacy of the category of denomination and the collection is enriched in particular by the contributions of two writers who reject it. Paul Avis, writing from within an Anglican ecclesiology of which he is perhaps the most prominent contemporary exponent[reference], Stephen R. Harmon from a Baptist [reference], Wolfgang Vondey from a Pentecostal [reference], and Elena Vishnevskaya from an Orthodox perspective [reference] question the validity of the denominational idea.

Their criticisms are helpful from the current perspective since they open up some of the difficulties with Ensign-George’s approach with which this dissertation will also struggle. The resolute congregationalism of Baptist ecclesiology which recognises the necessity of structures beyond the particular gathered Church throws light on the difficulty of the status of these structures. This point is well developed in Miroslav Volf’s highly influential After Our Likeness in which he emphasises the primacy of the Eucharistic community as constituting the Church. A denomination lacks both the immediacy of those gathered around the table and the universality of the Church catholic and hence appears to be a merely human rather than a genuinely divine institution. [reference]

A similar point is made by Avis in regard to the nation. He sees no real justification for ecclesial bodies other than the comprehensive national Church, as exemplified by the Church of England and hence denies the usefulness of the term “denomination”, and especially rejects its application to the national Church. [reference]

This Anglican argument is vulnerable, though, to that of Orthodox and Roman Catholic thinkers who would question the division of the Church into national bodies. They point out that “catholic” properly transcends the geopolitical boundaries of the contemporary nation-state. National churches, whether Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed, cannot claim full catholicity from this perspective. [reference to E-G collection and to Volf]

Denomination in the light of eschatological expectation

Karl Barth famously claimed that to have anything to do with Christ Christianity must be wholly and completely eschatological [reference]. This typically bold Barthian claim informs the critique and development here of Ensign-George’s systematic theology of the denomination. It will argue that this theology is insufficiently eschatological in its implicit rendering of the denomination as a permanent structuring of the Church and that as a consequence it is too cautious in generalising the category of denomination to those parts of the Church catholic that reject it for themselves. It is thus applied both too widely (through salvation history) and too narrowly (across the contemporary Church).

Here it is argued that the denominational form of Church is specifically modern and reflects characteristics necessary for the Church’s work in modernity (as Ensign-George correctly recognises [reference]) and that as soon as one ecclesial body is a denomination then all become denominations, whether or not they recognise this status.

Russell Richey is perhaps the leading writer on the denominational form of the Church of the last 50 years. His classic Denominationalism [reference] remains a central reference point in the discussion and more recent works continue to be widely influential. The key thing to note about this work, as demonstrated in his 2005 article on the future of denominationalism [reference] is its concentration on the peculiarities of American ecclesiastical history and its neglect of wider ecclesiological thinking. He starts from Niebuhr’s essentially sociological approach and inflects it more positively without asking questions about the relationship between denomination and Church. [reference to Niebuhr]

The tripartite categorisation of Church, sect and denomination that has become the dominant way of thinking about this category neglects the self-understanding of a denomination in terms of the Church catholic. It is this gap that Ensign-George attempts to fill.

His approach, which is to assert that in a diversified setting a diversified Church is required and one that can experiment without constraint, is in effect the articulation of the denominationalist self-understanding. The existence of multiple denominations is seen as unproblematic since an invisible unity can be asserted and expressed through tolerance of one another and mutual recognition. [reference]

In this light the waning of the ecumenical impulse of the twentieth century, which reached its high tide in the decades following the Second World War, appears unproblematic. The drive to visible, organic or institutional unity that had dominated the ecumenical movement need not be mourned. Rather inter-denominational tolerance and co-existence is a more appropriate response to the providential establishment of multiple denominational forms of the Church. Their mutual inter-dependence and permeability gives the Church catholic the flexibility and variety it needs to work in the superabundant creation order. [reference to E-G]

What this neglects is any strong and urgent sense either of the fallen condition of our world and the sinfulness of the people who make up the Church or of the corresponding still unfulfilled eschatological promise that is signified by the expectation of Christ’s return in glory. A complacent sense that the current character and behaviour of the Church can be interpreted as its carrying out of God’s will does not do justice to the orientation of Christian life towards the realisation of God’s kingdom.

This does not necessitate a wholesale rejection of the analysis and prescription that Ensign-George develops. He is right to take seriously the modern phenomenon of the denomination and to link this to the processes of specialisation and diversification evident in the development of capitalist modernity. These processes are irreversible and irresistible and those theologians who advocate either sectarian flight from them or a determined counter-attack against them threaten the Church with an obscurantist irrelevance. Ensign-George’s invocation of providence and a theology of creative superabundance are welcome correctives. [reference Milbank and Hauerwas]

However they open up another danger, one of complacent adjustment to the world as it is. This ignores the gulf between the conditions and nature of contemporary social and personal life and what we know of God’s will. It is impossible to believe that God’s kingdom is fully realised already and this means that the Church, too, is implicated in the fallen nature of the world it inhabits.

On this analysis one would not expect the Church to realise its nature before the realisation of the Kingdom (at which point it would pass away as a separate body). Equally, though, like the individual sinful Christian it would be called to submit itself to a process of sanctification by the Spirit which would enable it to discern more clearly the mode of life to which it is called.

This vision of the Church, as one in which a variety of partial and flawed responses to God’s promise and God’s call, struggle to conform themselves to God’s will has much in common with Ensign-George’s providential diversity. The difference is one of emphasis. Here the drive to change as we try to discern the part we have been given in God’s redeeming work takes priority and with it the process of change we call sanctification.

A further difference between this proposal and Ensign-George’s is that it entails a generalisation of the category of denomination from those who are comfortable with it to those who are not. The category itself has been inflected towards movement and change and can be expressed as: “a grouping together (in whatever way) of Christian communities that discern a common vocation”. That is to say the category of denomination that is used here does not depend on common forms of governance and belief (like the American denominations that have tended to be taken as paradigm cases) but rather on common tasks (e.g. formation or training of ministers as the most basic shared work).

On this basis Baptists, for example, would be a denomination with a looser association and Scottish Episcopalians a denomination with a tighter association but each would be denominations. The significance and justification of this shift in usage towards a broader application of a contentious term will emerge in the following section.

A denominationalist ecclesiology of eschatological vocation

Range of application of category of denomination

Resistance to the category of denomination comes from two directions. On the one hand there are those who would claim that their trans-congregational structures are “Church” in a more universal and complete sense and reject denominationalism as a weakening or denial of this claim and on the other there are those who would claim that the congregation is complete in itself and resist the establishment of any such structures. Both refuse the applicability of the term “denomination” to themselves and hence its more general usage in the Church as currently constituted. [references]

Ensign-George is careful to respect these views and to refrain from applying the category where it is denied (although one senses he thinks it is indeed applicable [reference]. Here it is argued that such restraint reduces the power and usefulness of a denominationalist ecclesiology and for this reason should be eschewed. All current trans-congregational structures are here described under the term denomination, including those of the Orthodox, the Roman Catholics and of those (e.g. Baptists and Congregationalists) who regard the Church as fully and completely present in a single gathered congregation.

This requires that the term is taken in a somewhat looser sense that is sometimes assumed where the model is one that involves, for example, rigorous definition of common standards of faith, extensive bureaucratic apparatus, mechanisms of discipline, or significant sharing and redistribution of material resources. Here the term denomination will be taken to mean any ecclesial structure that exhibits Ensign-George’s five characteristics, and hence would cover bodies such as the Baptist Union and the Congregational Federation on the one hand and the Churches of England and Scotland on the other. More contentiously it will also be extended to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches on the basis that in practice (through their increased ecumenical engagement) they have recognised their contingency, interdependence and permeability, even if they are unwilling yet to say so.

Vocation as ecclesiological category

If each denomination is to be understood as existing as part of the providential and pre-eschatlogical ordered of creation in salvation history then some account must be given of how they are to orient themselves to themselves, one another, and the the rest of the world. That is to say that such a view of denominations requires us to give some reason to believe that God might will their diversity and even their conflicts, while also acknowledging is call to be one Church.

The proposal here is that the idea of vocation should be the starting point in developing such an account. Each denomination is to be understood as responding to God’s call to be the Church in a particular aspect, to exemplify or enact some part of the Church’s being or doing. Furthermore these aspects are to be thought to be those that require or assume a wider Church life than that of the congregation. Congregations too have vocations, as do individuals, but in each case it is here suggested that these are particular to the person or corporate body called or called into being.

The call can be to do or say certain things or to be a particular way. In the current state of affairs with creation the Church catholic may have to say, do and be things that are in tension or even in conflict with one another. The existence of denominations enables this. A prominent example concerns the relationship of Church and State in a modernity partially defined by the form of the nation-state.

One proper role of the Church in this configuration of the political sphere is to model the integration of human being under divine rule by a close partnership of Church and civil authority, as in the national churches of Europe, whether Anglican, Lutheran or Reformed. In tension with this is the assertion of God’s sovereignty implicit both in the universalism of Roman Catholicism and in the voluntarism of the free churches. All three church forms are necessary to witness, in a fallen order, to the eschatological pattern of the Kingdom.

Contrast with category of identity

The idea of vocation as the central concept in understanding what a denomination should be and do has different implications than the alternative of “identity”. Developing this contrast is helpful in outlining some of the key results that might follow from adoption of the approach proposed here.

Vocation clearly implies both a starting position, that in which the call is heard, and a destination, the position to which the call draws one. One responding to a call is always in motion, on a journey or a quest. In the Christian context it evokes thoughts of formation and ordination to ministry but also of the undertaking of other tasks, “vocations” in the broader sense. If a denomination is brought into being by a communal or corporate call this implies a formation by God to some specific ministry and thus a development of a mode of existence as well as the carrying out of a task or set of tasks.

By contrast identity implies the consolidation of a fixed self with clear boundaries and clear and understood definitive properties that will enable identification as a particular thing or person. There is less sense of movement and of formation and more of firmness and fixedness. An identity implies stability.

Furthermore, in a denominational context identity, in stressing the unity of the one identified and its differentiation from others, makes more problematic the relationship between denomination and Church as the universal people of God and body of Christ. Vocational denominations naturally see themselves as making their various contributions to the overall work of the Church while identified denominations have subsequently to grapple with the problem of their relationships.

Vocation and eschatology

There are a number of key implications for the idea that denominations should be understood primarily in terms of response to vocations that are both specific to each of them and also to be placed in the context of the call of the whole Church. Denominational life should be expected to show a pattern of communal discernment in which a struggle is constantly underway to hear where God’s call is next leading the corporate body of the denomination. This will be made more difficult because the task of the particular denomination will only be properly comprehensible in context of the ecumene, this requiring of each the humility to recognise its own partiality. The denominational vocation will be distinct from that of any congregation within it, which will be shaped by their own local setting and relationships and the resources available to them.

Most fundamentally the recognition of the eschatological dimension means that no denomination’s call will be fully realisable in this age. If the fulfilment of the mission of the Church is its dissolution into the completed rule of God then until the institution of that rule all ecclesial life partakes of a sacramental character. It represents and makes present a reality that simultaneously remains absent and only promised. Each denomination (as in the examples outlined above) expresses a part only of what is to come and in being partial remains incomplete and, therefore, marred.

The next chapter begins to develop an analysis of the United Reformed Church, its vocation in the light of the ecclesiological proposal outlined in this.


Dissertation outline April 2012 June 3, 2012

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The argument of this dissertation is that the decision made by the 2007 General Assembly of the United Reformed Church not to attempt to arrive at a definitive answer to the question of whether it is appropriate to ordain individuals who are active homosexuals was the right one for the URC. It will seek to establish this by examining what it means to be a denomination and what kind of denomination the URC is. It will relate the debates on ordination of homosexuals to this understanding of the URC, seeking to demonstrate that the decision to live with apparently irreconcilable differences, in this as in other cases, is essential to the role it is called to play within the Church catholic.

Crucial to this argument is the idea of “denominational vocation”. This requires an sketch of a denominationalist ecclesiology, which it is suggested here has not yet been adequately developed. Some foundational propositions for this are:

  • that no denomination is currently in a position to claim to be the Church, all are fragments;

  • that the (correct) view that this division of the Church is sinful properly resides in tension with confidence in God’s providential rule in the midst of this division;

  • that one resource for making this tension creative is the idea of “vocation”, of God’s calling of individual Christians but also Christian collectivities to participation in the missio dei;
  • that these vocations are specific to the body called, that is to say that denominations have vocations distinct from (but not conflicting with) that of their constituent elements, whether individuals, local congregations, or other collectivities;

  • that it, therefore, makes sense to explore what a denomination is called to, what its purpose is in God’s plan, allowing that different denominations will have different missions and that these will not coincide completely with that of any or all the congregations, people and other bodies that it contains.

Having established this ecclesiological framework the next step is the outline of an account of the vocation of the URC. The primary point of reference for this is the process by which this new denomination came into being in 1972 through the union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England and Wales and the subsequent unions with the Churches of Christ in England and Scotland in 1980 and with the Scottish Congregationalists in 2000. The Basis of Union as the founding document will be analysed and the history interpreted to argue that the vocation of the URC is primarily an ecumenical one.

It will be shown that periodic and partial searches for other “identities” (a term much used in the URC but here rejected in favour of “vocation”) including that of Reformed and of progressive as well as that of dissenting have been failures and have distracted from what has been widely recognised as the URC’s distinctive contribution to the Church. It will be argued that there are few if any aspects of Christian tradition and life that are peculiarly and uniformly the preserve of the URC. Different people and different churches within the denomination occupy a very wide range of positions. What is special about it is that at the denominational level it intentionally holds together these differences without an obvious means of doing so (here a contrast with the national churches of England and Scotland will be drawn in which it is argued that being “national” is their vocation which means they hold their differences together in a different way).

Having thus established an account of URC’s vocation the dissertation will turn to the story of debates on ordination of homosexuals that began in 1995 with a request for clarification from one of the denominations training colleges prompted by the affirmation by a Synod of the call of someone openly homosexual. It will trace the debates that concluded with the permissive stance and declaration of a seven year moratorium at the 1999/2000 General Assemblies. It will then analyse the conclusion in 2007 that the denomination was not in a position to make further decisions and that we should continue to live with our differences.

The general ecclesiological and specific denominational conclusions arrived at earlier will be drawn upon to argue that this is an appropriate response by the URC to our own situation and to that of the wider Church. It will be suggested that the unsatisfactory nature of the position that the 2007 Assembly left our communal life in is a valuable witness to the Church catholic, if properly understood and intentionally lived into as a sacrificial task of discipleship. More recent events will be reported and considered in that light and a continued patient discernment of the Spirit’s guiding urged.

Chapter 1: Denominationalist Ecclesiology

This chapter will first briefly survey the academic literature on “denominationalism” which traces this phenomenon from a beginning in English Independent and Baptist thought and practice in the 17th Century through developments in North America to the contemporary world. This literature has a primarily historical and sociological character and does not reflect deeply on the implications of the rise of the denominational principle for the theological understanding of the nature of the Church and its place in the overall scheme of the created and fallen world on its way to redemption at the eschaton.

In this chapter a sketch of the direction such a reflection should take will be presented and some preliminary conclusions offered.

No denomination is currently in a position to claim to be the Church, all are fragments

It will be argued that the universality is a necessary property of the Church and that none of its current manifestations can convincingly claim that universality. Consideration will be given to the ways in which national churches and the Roman Catholic church could make this claim and reasons offered to reject any such attempt. Similarly the class Congregationalist suggestion that the local church as gathered congregation can claim catholicity directly without reference to any wider ecclesial structure will be briefly examined and rejected (a primary source for this section will be Miroslav Volf for Catholicism and Congregationalism, sources yet to be identified for Anglican and Presbyterian versions of the national church).

Sin and providence in church division

We normally and quite properly identify the division in the Church as a consequence and expression of human sin. It is not to be denied that this is a correct diagnosis but it will here be suggested that another perspective can also contribute to understanding this phenomenon. This is the perspective that asserts that even after the fall God remains sovereign and that human actors can be seen as carrying out God’s work even where they are unaware that they are doing so. This does not absolve them for accountability for their actions but does provide another way of seeing them (as in the prophetic designation of Nebuchadnezzar as God’s servant who will nonetheless be judged for his persecution of Israel).

Such a view of Church division open up the question of what God’s purpose might be in and for the fragments of the divided Church. A number of different kinds of response will be available to this question and not all of them can be even indicated here. Instead one general answer will be offered and then the task of discernment passed to the examination of the fragments.

This general answer will be sought in the concept of “modernity” as an era of specialisation and differentiation. It is not the intention to adopt the over-confident designation of distinct eras that sometimes characterise historicist fables of modernity and post-modernity but it will be suggested that over a long historical period from the consolidation of new political authorities in Europe after the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West certain processes may be observed. These centre on the creation of spheres and roles with ever more tightly circumscribed functions.

The Church has not been immune to this process. Tasks that were at one time carried out by the Church have increasingly passed to institutions specifically established for and dedicated to these functions (education, medicine and social welfare are outstanding examples). At the same time within the diminished sphere of responsibility of the Church the complexity of what remains has increased greatly. It will be suggested that the Church’s continuing (and increasing) fragmentation should be understood in this context. On the one hand different parts of the Church have adapted to different aspects of the changing situation within which it finds itself and on the other this adaptation has taken place at different rates. Both of these create ecclesial formations with different structures, different composition, different self-understandings, and different contexts. As well as being problematic and sinful this should also be understood as providential

Denominational vocation

It makes sense to view all these fragments of the Church as denominations, that is to say bodies that belong to the Church catholic in principle and understand themselves in this way but which have full autonomy from one another and claim theological warrant for their separation without denying the legitimacy of other denominational bodies. It further makes sense to attempt to discern God’s purpose in calling them into being, in looking for their distinct vocations within the missio Dei.

It is essential to the argument here that the vocation of a denomination is not identical, although it must be compatible, either with that of the Church catholic or that of the local church. Congregations in different denominations but similar situations may have similar or even identical vocations (as is evidenced by the success of some local ecumenical partnerships). Equally different congregations within the same denomination may have very different vocations and missions. Some denominational functions will be similar or even identical between denominations. But a key contention of this dissertation is that each denomination has the responsibility to discern its own particular vocation, what it is that God has called it into being to do, show, or be.

Chapter 2: The ecumenical vocation of the URC

The URC came into being as the union of two quite distinct traditions, English and Welsh Congregationalism, with its roots in 17th Century Independency and the subsequent history of the Old Dissent in England on the one hand and Scottish Presbyterianism as transplanted to England by migration (in both its establishment and its dissenting versions) on the other. It is important to recognise that while these two streams had some important things in common (notably attachment to the Reformed tradition and rejection of episcopacy) there were significant differences on others (church polity, the status of ministers within the church, church establishment on which the English Presbyterian position remained ambivalent).

From the beginning the URC stressed the desire for unity above the differences that continued to divide it. This emphasis was characteristic of the time, the high tide of structural ecumenism, but was also distinctive to the new denomination, one of a number of united or uniting denominations around the world which sought to embody and promote the unity of Christians as the precondition for the Church’s mission. This movement at once recognised the reality of the denominational present and attempted to overcome it through the (re)creation of an authentically catholic Church.

The tensions within the URC and its commitment to an ecumenical mission were both strengthened by the union with tthe Re-formed Association of the Churches of Christ in 1981. The Churches of Christ had hesitated for a long time because of very significant differences in approach to sacrament and ministry with their new partners. They were committed to believers baptism did not admit those not so baptised to the Eucharist. On Eucharistic presidency they were strongly committed to this not being the preserve of those ordained to evangelistic ministry and indeed as not part of the role of these people at all. On the other hand they have always had as an important part of their self-understanding commitment to Church unity. This conflict was resolved through the various compromises made in 1981.

Similarly some Congregationalists regarded their polity as essential to their Christianity, to the extent that a substantial number refused to join the 1972 union. Most, however accepted (however reluctantly) a substantially Presbyterian order for the new denomination, although one so modified by Congregationalist elements as to be barely acceptable to a committed Presbyterian. As with the Churches of Christ the strong tradition in parts of the Congregationalist world of lay presidency was also partly sacrificed, but enough of it was retained to cause discomfort among some Presbyterians.

These tensions within the denomination, present from the very beginning, are worth enumerating because they demonstrate that the union was not one of people who had found a way to agree about things. Rather it was a union of those who agreed that unity was more important that agreement about these things. There was always a limit to the disgreement that could be accommodated (as the existence of the Congregational Federation demonstrates) but this limit was quite broad.

The question this has always begged and continues to beg is what the unity means, what it is we agree about that justifies the compromises necessary to come and to stay together. The contention of this dissertation is that this is the wrong question. The right question is not about agreement but about vocation. What is the distinctive mission of the URC that justifies its ongoing separate existence?

The answer to this question must be found in the history and nature of the denomination and it is the witness to the call to unity. Even where the practical possibility of further union appears distant, as at present, and where the growth of the Church is outside the denominational range where ecumenism has ever been of real interest (in Baptist and especially in Pentecostal or Charismatic formations outside the old denominations) this witness remains vital. The URC, as a denomination formed for and in the ecumenical effort, has this role.

Its denominational vocation, it is here argued, is to be the proponents and exemplars of Church unity as an end in itself.

Chapter 3: URC sexuality debates 1995-2007

This vocation (to witness to the value of unity in difference among Christians) can be seen as active within debates and decisions on ordination of homosexuals. This is evidenced in:

  • the prominence of the necessity of union as a theological imperative in the documents informing the 1999 GA decision

  • the 2000 GA decision that in the absence of a clear decision by the denomination as a whole to adopt the 1999 GA line that ordination of homosexuals should be regarded as unproblematic future decisions on such ordinations would be the responsibility of the ordaining synods and churches

  • the 2007 GA decision that while the current ambiguous position is unsatisfactory the correct course in the absence of evidence that consensus is possible is to continue with it while encouraging further discussion while acknowledging that there exist a range strongly held and mutually incompatible views within the denomination

Many within the denomination (on both sides of the debate) regard this series of events to be a series of “fudges” that evade the issue on purely pragmatic grounds and urge the taking of the issue to a decision even if that means a division of the denomination to allow the creation of a smaller body, or perhaps more than one smaller bodies, with greater cohesiveness. What has not to date been properly articulated is the argument that our distinctive cohesiveness is not grounded in agreement about the theology of sexuality or about anything else. Our distinctive cohesion is in the witness ot the value of Christian unity as such.

The peculiar and distinctive polity that supports and enable the current ambiguity is at once itself an expression of this prioritisation of unity and the key enabler of it. It is sufficiently Presbyterian that difference on this and on other questions is visible and problematic and sufficiently Congregational that it can contain the differences without pushing most of those unhappy with the official position to schism, secession, or exit.

It is now possible for homosexual and partnered individuals to be ordained and to minister within the URC, and a significant number do. There is no necessity for concealment or hypocrisy for these people, they are known and acknowledged within thedenomination (albeit that there are places and roles it would be difficult for them to occupy). At the same time churches and synods that have theological objections to their ministry can coexist with them in our structure because no effort has or could be made to force them actually to affirm them (and this in turn makes some individuals with these beliefs feel excluded from some places and positions).

This chapter will offer a reading of the documents of the 1999, 2000 and 2007 General Assemblies on sexuality against the background of the debates that lead up to 1999 and the events that transpired between the Assemblies to support this interpretation of the URC’s evolution shaped by the ecclesiological analysis of the first two chapters.

Chapter 4: Living with difference as response to vocation

This chapter will reflect further on the way in which the current position of the URC on sexuality can be interpreted as a response to the view of its vocation developed in Chapter 2. This reflection will be worked out by brief theological reflections on:

  • recent events in the denomination surrounding the proposal for a marketing campaign based on a theology of “radical welcome” under the slogan “Zero Intolerance” (ZI);

  • the difference between the URC and the British national churches (Church of England and Church of Scotland) in the handling of the presenting issue of homosexual ordination.

In the first case the events surrounding the abortive launch and eventual abandonment of the campaign will be roughly sketched and an account based seeing this as an attempt to define a denominational “identity” in continuity with earlier explorations of this approach to the URC offered. It will be suggested that this attempt is both valuable and necessary but that one lesson of ZI is that such an attempt will only succeed if it values appropriately the distinctive history and ethos of the URC as an ecumenical project and recognises that this is its primary vocation. This means that the holding together of difference within the structure of the denomination is an imperative for it and any move to prioritise anything that divides will fail to cohere with this.

A contrast will be drawn with the national churches which have in some respects got the same task of holding together different wings and positions in a single body but which have taken rather different approaches. In both cases, although in different ways, there is a stronger drive towards resolution of the issue in a formula that can be adopted or imposed throughout their structures. It will be suggested that the difference is that for these denominations (and it will be argued that they should be seen as denominations rather than under the alternative designation drawn from the sociological literature on this matter “churches”) being “national” is their primary vocation.

The meaning of “nationality” as a vocation will be briefly considered and its consequences for the ways in which unity in difference is experienced and managed contrasted with that of a denomination (the URC in this case) for which witness to catholic unity is the primary vocation. It will here be suggested that both (“nationality” and “catholic unity”) are aspects of the being of the Church that need to be witnessed to in the current situation of Christian mission.


The conclusion will focus on the current position of the URC arguing

  • that its ambiguous and ambivalent nature should not be evaded or denied but should be affirmed and articulated as an appropriate and positive response to its vocation
  • that this requires that the differences within it be faced squarely and openly and no attempt made to minimise them or to deny their importance to those who hold positions that are incompatible with those of others within the denomination
  • that the difficulties and sacrifices this demands of those whose own personal or congregational vocations, as they discern them, are impeded should be acknowledged and whatever measures are possible taken to minimise such difficulties
  • that a positive effort should be made to articulate the ecumenical vocation of the denomination in the present moment looking honestly at the overall situation of the Church in the UK and stating the ways in which the URC’s witness in this regard can be made most effective
  • that the process of living through our differences can only be sustained through confidence that the Spirit is guiding us in discerning a distinctive and unique vocation, as it is for others, and that listening to its guiding requires patient faith from us

Church and State in Luther April 4, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick Brindley @ 11:51 am


That there was a development in Luther’s thinking about the rights and responsibilities of the secular power in the field of religion has long been recognised. A tension between the radical separation of the “two kingdoms” in his writings of the early 1520s and the affirmation of the Christian prince’s leading role in the Church from the latter part of that decade is obvious and much remarked.[1]

In recent years a debate has taken place between two English speaking scholars of Luther on this question. James Estes has argued that the later Luther is best seen as agreeing with Philipp Melanchthon on the cura religionis, the idea that within the community of Christians the secular ruler has the responsibility to take care of  the spiritual as well as of the material well-being of those under their care. The residual resistance that Estes recognises in late Luther texts are regarded as inconsistencies rather than a distinct position and due to the influence of Ockhamist philosophy rather than to the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation.[2]

This thesis been contested by David Whitford who has argued that the evangelical identification of saving faith as the offering of a free conscience remains central to Luther’s thought to the end. Whitford accepts the movement towards a stronger role for the magistrate but asserts a greater difference between Luther and Melanchthon in terms of the theology of this shift. Luther’s resistance to the rule of the secular magistrate in matters of religion is seen by Whitford as principled and consistent.[3]

This essay will consider this question, of the limits of the responsibilities of the civil magistrate in Luther, though the lens of this recent debate and develop some systematic and ecclesiological considerations from it. In the end the difference between Estes and Whitford will be seen to be less one about the historical-theological questions of the content and development of Luther’s thought than about the assessment of two possible approaches to them.

Estes favours the greatest possible consistency and coherence in thought and practice. He sees Melanchthon’s development of a system that could account theologically for the evolving reality of Lutheran politics and ecclesial organisation as a step forward. Whitford, on the other hand, prefers the purity of early evangelical doctrine, of the freedom of conscience and individual responsibility.

This essay will argue that the tensions in Luther’s thought, recognised by both Estes and Whitford but assessed differently, were always inherent in the teaching of the Reformer. It will argue further that these tensions (or “paradoxes” to borrow a term from that great nineteenth century Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard) are not an accidental property of Luther’s thought. Rather it will suggest that they constitute the heart of the continuing importance and relevance of this founding figure of the modern world and the modern Church. In them we see the traces of the paradoxical reality of Christian life in the already and not-yet of God’s rule and the signs of the way in which the Christian is called to be in but not of this fallen world.

Luther early and late: the evolution of Two Kingdoms

The early Luther: two kingdoms, two regiments

Luther’s early teaching on the relationship of the secular and spiritual powers is best captured in Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed a text written in 1523 in response to moves by the Catholic Duke of Saxony to suppress Luther’s translation of the New Testament. In it he distinguishes sharply between the secular sword, needed to suppress the outworking of sinful assaults on peace and order and the spiritual authority that works towards true righteousness through the proclamation of the Gospel. These two “regiments” both express God’s sovereignty over creation, being two aspects of God’s rule.[4]

This is not the only meaning of the phrase “two kingdoms” in the early Luther, though. He also has a strong sense of an eschatological struggle between the forces of good, loyal to God, and the forces of evil lead by Satan. These also form two kingdoms., that of God and that of the Devil or of the world. Alongside the idea of God’s universal rule there this idea of a war.[5]

Crucial to this distinction is the idea that salvation, the central concern of the spiritual power, is a matter of faith and not of any kind of work. Complete freedom is required in the spiritual domain since saving faith must be that of the free conscience. There can be no compulsion in this regard. This drives the sharp separation of the two governments with an irresistible logic.[6]

The late Luther: the Christian prince and the Christian community

When one examines the writings of the later Luther this logic has been much modified by the experience of the Reformation struggles as well as by further reflection. His concern that papalist doctrine subordinated the civil magistrate to ecclesial authority thus preventing both from fulfilling their divinely ordained roles[7] was now supplemented by resistance to the Anabaptist teaching that the Christian was free from all loyalty to secular authority.[8] His defence of the validity of coercive rule was now mounted on two fronts.

Further the experience of the Saxon church in benefiting from the support of a Lutheran ruler and of the chaos and dislocation of a collapse of all ecclesial authority made Luther increasingly aware of the necessity of structures of rule within the Church considered as a human institution. From the later 1520s he supported and participated in a system of control over the reformed Saxon church that based itself on the power of the Elector while asserting the independence of spiritual judgement.[9]

This combined with the long-standing awareness that the Christian was not freed from sin in this world, that the Christian was a member simultaneously of the spiritual and of the secular realm and that two governments had to cooperate in shaping the life of the community.[10]

Continuity, discontinuity, history and theology

Texts like the preface to the instructions to the visitors or the commentary on Psalm 101, with their clear adoption of a legitimate role for the prince in the organisation of the church and the suppression of false teaching appear at first sight to be in sharp conflict with the earlier demand for complete autonomy of the spiritual from the secular government and rejection of any mixing of their domains.[11] Furthermore in Melanchthon and later Lutheran orthodoxy the granting of oversight of the church to the prince was asserted and defended. It is this that leads Estes to argue for a complete reorientation of Luther’s thinking in this regard.[12]

However it is impossible to ignore the reality that the characteristic centrality of the freedom of conscience in religion and of separation of the two kingdoms continues to be a theme in the later Luther.[13] It is this that causes Estes to convict him of failing to think through the new position consistently and Whitford to claim that he remained true to his early evangelical teaching against Estes’ identification of his later position with that of Melanchthon.[14]

The late Luther: consistencies and inconsistencies

Blasphemy and sedition: religious and civil order

In defending the role of the magistrate in religion while continuing to assert the freedom of conscience in faith one path Luther takes is making the case that religious dissent is not always or easily distinguishable from political dissent. Blasphemy he argues can easily become or justify sedition.[15]

The arguments for this position are twofold and each of them will be important when we come to consider the contemporary significance of these debates within and about Luther.

On the one hand he suggests that rejection of God’s sovereignty over the world will be closely aligned to rejection of the sovereignty of God’s appointed magistrate. The magistrates are “gods” who stand as God’s representatives and recognition of the authority of one is necessary to proper recognition of the other.[16]

On the other hand he thinks that dissension on matters of religion will lead to dissension in the civil sphere so that a properly functioning polity requires uniformity in religion even where this comes at the cost of some sacrifice of religious truth, so that Lutherans should not preach the evangelical message where they are in the minority or opposed by the magistrate.[17]

The prince as Christian: thinking about David

Another important dimension of Luther’s late position is his consideration of the position of the Christian ruler as a Christian. The ruler qua ruler is bound by natural law and could perform their function as ordained by God by following the advice of the great pagan thinkers about secular government.[18] However the Christian prince is not operating only on this basis but has in addition the responsibilities laid upon them by the Gospel.[19]

This implies first that they will follow the moral teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, which while it does not, given the individual’s responsibilities to others as determined by their station, preclude use of the sword does demand a selfless disregard of their own interests.[20] Secondly it means that they have, as Christians, to promote the truth of the gospel and in particular to promote and protect those who teach it and repress those who oppose it.[21] This is the first virtue of the prince.

In exceptional cases this duty can go still further and the prince can himself become the means for the direct promotion of God’s truth. David is the outstanding example to rulers and takes direct command in religious affairs. Because of the extraordinary character of his inspiration by God he could promote right religion without separation of the roles of religious teacher and king.[22]

The impossibility of compelling belief: the great problem

However even in this later phase of his career where Luther had come to accept the necessity of coercive religious discipline and the possibility of convergence of the two governments in the case of an exceptional inspired individual he still retained his belief in the dependence of saving faith on the freedom of the individual conscience in matters of faith.[23] As Luther states in the late lectures on Genesis “the Gospel is something heard … It is not with the sword … but with … the doctrine of faith that … [Christ] will rule.”[24]

Luther’s core belief in free interiority as central to the saving relationship with Christ means that however much realism about the political situation and reflection about the harm done by false teaching might force him to concede a religious role to the secular power a residual space for the  choice of believing or not believe had to be retained.

Systematic reflections

Interiority and exteriority: how to think the Church

What can we learn from this account of Luther’s career about the nature of the Church as an institution? The first thing to note is that Luther always made a distinction between the Church and the spiritual kingdom. In the early 1520s, when the separation of the two kingdoms was most starkly stated this was not primarily a call for the autonomy of the Church and the civil authority. After all Luther and his evangelical allies did not constitute a church and were excluded from the Church. The consolidation of ecclesial structures loyal to Luther’s teaching was possible only on the basis of support from Lutheran princes and took place only in the second half of the 1520s.[25]

Luther believed that the true Church was recognisable not by any institutional mark but only through the presence of the twin features of the Word truly preached and the sacraments properly administered.[26] Even this, though, was ancillary to faith. Salvation was not a gift of the Church or mediated by it. Salvation was a gift of God given directly to the individual believer by grace through faith. The exterior and temporal work of the Church, while valuable, was secondary to the interior work of God’s grace active in faith. This left the Church in an ambiguous position between the two governments.

Living between the times: how to think the State

The issues with the civil authority are rather different. There is a problem with how to reconcile the necessity of coercive authority exercised by human agents with God’s sovereignty which is intensified once a role is given to this authority in the regulation of religious affairs.

Luther is clear both that political authority properly so called between human beings is a feature of the fallen world and did not exist in the pre-lapsarian condition[27] and that once established its proper exercise does not require any form of directly revealed Law or instruction.[28] The existence of coercive authority founded on natural law is an ordinance of God but responds to the presence of evil (the kingdom of Satan) in the world. This combination of trust in God’s sovereignty with recognition of a struggle between rival powers is a difficult one to maintain.

This problem changes its shape once a positive role is accorded to the secular power not only in the secular but also in the spiritual domain. If the magistrate can contribute to spiritual salvation through regulation and control of the church as well as keeping the peace and preserving life then the place of the “sword” in the plans of Providence becomes ambiguous. Is it only a negative response to the consequences of sin or does it also have a positive role in salvation?

Luther’s response to this is deeply ambivalent, as is clearest in the long and tortuous discussion of the figure of David in his reflection on Psalm 101 written as advice to the new Lutheran Elector of Saxony in 1535. The conclusion, insofar as this text can be said to have one, is that the promotion of religious truth by a secular ruler is an exception, a feature of the rule of a directly inspired individual.[29] This must indicate a profound trouble in Luther’s thought, a moment of theological crisis.

Luther and modernity: thinking Church and State at once

The Church and the civil authority both occupy both realms in the thought of the late Luther. The Church is the site within which the Word is taught and saving faith facilitated but it is also a human institution and a site of struggle between God’s rule and that of Satan, as are all earthly institutions. It can degenerate and fall into the power of Antichrist, as has the church of Rome, and it can come to rely on the secular power as its ally and protector, as has the evangelical church of Saxony. The preacher and teacher is the instrument used by God for the work of salvation and the Church the setting for his or her work.

Similarly the civil authority, a merely defensive measure in the thought of the early Luther has come to have an increasingly positive role in the work of salvation. Whether this is theologised in terms of the relationship between sedition and blasphemy, which tends to assimilate the prince to God[30] or through the figure of David as the inspired servant of God a movement is made towards a Holy state. However Luther’s continuing teaching of sola fide means that this movement can never be completed. It remains an anxious and conflicted teaching which opens up a space for us to think about how to think the coexistence of a Church shrunk to a minority with a state which is self-consciously secular in the sense of recognising no religious responsibility and no dependence on God.


The ambiguities and conflicts in Luther’s work should be seen as a positive rather than a negative feature of it. They reflect his lively sense of the world we inhabit as one that is at odds with the way God would have it be; of the world as riven with conflict between God and Satan; of the possibility of a live and saving relationship to God in faith which nonetheless leaves the believer as a sinner; of the dual existence of the Christian as at once subject to the Law and the sword and as a free member of the spiritual kingdom where equality is the order and coercion is unnecessary.

These paradoxes are inherent in a Christianity that takes seriously both dimensions of its eschatological teaching. That Christ will at a future time return in judgement to end the waiting and resolve the injustices and conflicts of our fallen world; and that the Kingdom of God is here and now, that through faith we enter into that Kingdom and dwell within it in the midst of our earthly life, that redemption is already completed.

This structure works itself out in both Church and state and in their relationship to one another, even in societies where public discourse recognises neither the universal nature of the Church nor the divinely ordained character is civil rule. For the Christian thinker who takes seriously the idea of God’s sovereignty this public discourse cannot have the last word. Luther’s distinctive combination of a natural law account of the nature of civil rule with a rigorously Christocentric doctrine of salvation through faith; his ability to hold together a view of the Church as constituted only by Word and sacraments with an institutional flexibility that can accommodate a variety of forms and of articulations with the power of the sword provides post-Reformation theology with valuable resources for rethinking our position in a secularised legal field without resort either to nostalgia for an organic Christendom or to a sectarian refusal of our citizenship.


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Estes, J. M. (2003) ‘Luther on the role of secular authority in the Reformation’, Lutheran Quarterly, 17(2), 199-225.

Estes, J. M. (2005) Peace, order, and the glory of God : secular authority and the church in the thought of Luther and Melanchthon, 1518-1559, Studies in medieval and Reformation traditions,, Leiden: Brill.

Hinlicky, P. R. (2010) Luther and the beloved community : a path for Christian theology after Christendom, Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: W.B. Eerdmans.

Höpfl, H., Luther, M. and Calvin, J. (1991) Luther and Calvin on secular authority, Cambridge texts in the history of political thought, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kramm, H. H. W. (1951) ‘Luther’s teaching on Christian responsibility in politics’, Lutheran Quarterly, 3(3), 308-313.

Lindberg, C. (1976) ‘Theology and politics : Luther the radical and Muntzer the reactionary’, Encounter, 37(4), 356-371.

Lohse, B. (1999) Martin Luther’s theology : its historical and systematic development, Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Lose, D. J. (1999) ‘The Ambidextrous God : Luther on Faith and Politics’, Word & World, 19(3), 260-267.

Luther, M. and Atkinson, J. (1966) Luther’s works. Vol. 44-47, The Christian in society, Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Luther, M. and Gritsch, E. W. (1958) Luther’s works. Vol. 39-41, Church and ministry, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press.

Luther, M. and Lehmann, H. T. (1957) Luther’s works. Vol. 31-34, Career of the reformer, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press.

Luther, M. and Pelikan, J. (1955a) Luther’s works. Vol. 1-8, Lectures on Genesis, Saint Louis: Concordia.

Luther, M. and Pelikan, J. (1955b) Luther’s works. Vol. 12-14, Selected psalms, Saint Louis: Concordia.

Nessan, C. L. (2005) ‘Reappropriating Luther’s two kingdoms’, Lutheran Quarterly, 19(3), 302-311.

Nestingen, J. A. (1999) ‘The Two Kingdoms Distinction : An Analysis with Suggestion’, Word & World, 19(3), 268-275.

Sauter, G. (2007) Protestant theology at the crossroads : how to face the crucial tasks for theology in the twenty-first century, Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: W. B. Eerdmans.

Stumme, J. R. and Tuttle, R. W. (2003) Church and state : Lutheran perspectives, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Whitford, D. M. (2004) ‘Cura Religionis or two kingdoms: the late Luther on religion and the state in the lectures on Genesis’, Church History, 73(1), 41-62.

[1]    e.g. (Lohse 1999) pp314-325

[2]    (Estes 2005) p6

[3]    (Whitford 2004)

[4]    (Höpfl 1991)

[5]    (Höpfl 1991) p8-9

[6]    (Höpfl 1991) p24-25

[7]      LW 13 p194

[8]      LW 13 p62

[9]    LW 40 269-273

[10]  (Estes 2003) p12-18

[11]    LW 13 p193

[12]  (Estes 2003) p220

[13]    e.g. LW 13 p62

[14]    (Estes 2003) p 20-21 and (Whitford 2004) p22

[15]  LW 13 pp46-47

[16]  LW 13 p46

[17]    LW 13 p63

[18]    LW 13 pp199-201

[19]    LW 13 p52

[20]    LW 13 p54-5

[21]  LW 13 p52

[22]  LW 13 p189

[23]  LW 13 p 62

[24]  LW 8 p329

[25]  (Estes 2003) p18

[26]    LW 13 p90

[27]    LW 1 p104

[28]   LW 13 p198

[29]    LW 13 p223-4

[30]    LW 13 p44


Nebuchadnezzar My Servant January 9, 2012

“Nebuchadnezzar my servant” and the Church: reading Jeremiah as an exercise in typological ecclesiology


This essay explores the way in which a contemporary reading of the place of Babylon in the Book of Jeremiah can inform discussion of the practice of Christian churches today. It argues that a “typological” reading of the Old Testament in a Christian context and a “canonical” approach to such reading can make possible the use of the Old Testament in contemporary ecclesiology.

After establishing this  methodological framework it outlines a “typological ecclesiology” based on seeing the Church as constituting the new Israel via the mediation of Christ. The implications of this are explored through an account of God’s sovereignty and of Israel among the nations.

This theological background then forms the basis for a reading of Jeremiah focussing on nation and empire and particularly Babylon, the Davidic monarchy and the covenants. It is argued that the account of the significance of the exile and of its temporary character in Jeremiah enable a profound exploration of the relationship between divine and human authority, or sovereignty.

Old Testament Theology – reading the OT typologically

Possible Christian approaches to the OT

For the purposes of this essay I would like to distinguish four possible ways for a Christian to read the Old Testament: as a library of timeless doctrine and ethics (“inerrancy”); as a record of a surpassed stage in religious development (“history of religions”); as a means of access to another way of being in the world (“Athens and Jerusalem”); as a repertoire of human roles in relation to God (“Typologically”).[i]


While the “inerrantist” position is strongly influential in parts of the church it is not one that features greatly in the academic context and indeed is completely ignored in recent surveys of the development of the discipline.[ii]


The “history of religions”, exemplified in the study of the OT by scholars like Wellhausen, Gunkel, Eichorn and Mowinckel[iii], sees these texts as the documentary residue of the development of Israelite religion. Influenced by 19th Century philosophies of historical progress of ancient Jewish religion was seen as a stage through which religious development had passed. This made theological use of the OT deeply problematic.


As part of the revolution in Christian theology associated with the name of Karl Barth and the period after the First World War the reading the OT as revelation moved back towards the centre of Biblical scholarship. The two thinkers most prominent in this connection were Eichrodt and Von Rad.[iv] While great differences exist between the approaches of these theological interpreters they have in common a determination to see the OT as revealing God now.


More recently the development of “canonical” and “literary” interpretation in a “post modern” field has encouraged the return of a Christocentric and “typological” method which sees Christ as the fulfilment of the religion of Israel and therefore can read the OT text through the lens of Jesus.[v] It is this approach which inspires the efforts made in this essay to grasp Jeremiah theologically.

Israel – nation and Church

Typological readings seek to understand the OT texts as revealing “types” of Christ, as enabling us to understand aspects of Christ’s identity as God the Son. Critical to this undertaking is the idea that he represents the fulfilment of Israel’s mission as God’s people. For the modern Christian one extension of this is into ecclesiology. The Church is indwelt by Christ and continues Christ’s work, it is the “body of Christ” and in so being becomes the people of God.[vi]


This gathering together and fulfilment of the Israel’s mission in Christ is multi-dimensional. In particular the three-fold ministry of Prophet, Priest and King concentrated in the person of Jesus has long been a theme of the Christian tradition. In the gospel narratives of Jesus’ ministry and the reflection on it in the epistles this theme, with the revelation of God’s will and word, the sacrificial cult, and the operation of the Law, can be discerned. These aspects of Christ’s work can only be grasped in their inherent richness through OT record.


In turn the mission of the Church, authorised, commanded and exemplified by Christ in the Spirit, needs to be developed through a reading of the Scriptural record, one part of which is attempted here. Israel is seen as a type of the Church, mediated by the embodiment of Israel by Christ. It must be stressed that this appropriation of the OT for Christianity does not necessitate the denial of the continuing existence of Israel itself as the chosen people, but can rather can seen as a parallel development.

Israel and the nations – the global sovereignty of God

God’s choosing of Israel (and typologically of the Church) has to be set in context of the Israelite claim of the universal sovereignty of their God. The choosing of a peculiar people does not imply the surrender or the abandonment of the rest of humanity or indeed the rest of the cosmos. In insisting on the singular creative activity of Yahweh Israelite religion made clear that their God was not one among many but unique. This claim remains central to Christian faith


The status of the division of humanity into nations within this singular created order forms part of the Genesis narrative that culminates in the election of Abraham. The genealogy of the nations is traced to Noah and his sons in Genesis 10 and the diversity of languages to the disaster at Babel in Genesis 11. The OT regards the division into nations as secondary and originating in sin. Israel’s election is set in this context.[vii]


Abram’s call and the covenant that comes from it constitutes the nation of Israel but also sets them in the family of nations in a very particular way. Israel is to be a blessing to the nations. It is set apart within the family of nations but not over or against them. This tension between being a nation amongst nations, involved in their struggles over power and pre-eminence but also established as a blessing to them with a special relationship to the sovereign God is essential the the Biblical narrative.[viii]

The sovereignty of Christ and the place of the Church


Jesus Christ as incarnate Son of God concentrates in his person the three-fold ministry of prophet, priest and king inherited from historical Israel. This distinctively Reformed emphasis[ix] includes as central the idea that the risen and ascended Christ is King. The meaning of this office is a matter of some controversy but here it is assumed (in line with the typological orientation outlined above) that it can be grasped only through immersion in the difficulties and complexities of the Scriptural record. Furthermore the relationships of Christ the King, the Church as his people, and the secular power are to be worked out through an encounter with that record.


One central issue to be dealt with here is that of the fraught question of how to reconcile God’s universal sovereignty with the election of a peculiar people, the “scandal of particularity”. This is present in the OT, as we have noted above in relation to Abraham’s call and will examine below in reading Jeremiah, but is also intensified by the situation of the Church, dispersed throughout the nations.


This is especially so when one considers the situation of the Church with respect to the secular power. For a long period the Churches in both the Eastern and Western territories of the Roman Empire, its successor states and self-appointed inheritors was deeply entangled with the state. Since the 17th Century there has been a long process of separation. This leaves the question of sovereignty as deeply problematic for the churches, especially those with a history of state establishment. It is the central argument of this essay that these questions can be illuminated through a reading of the OT, and especially of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah to which we must now turn.

Approaching Jeremiah

Jeremiah the man and Jeremiah the book

In beginning to interpret Jeremiah some basic decisions need to be made. In particular one needs to decide how one will orient oneself in relating the canonical Book of Jeremiah and the 7th and 6th Century individual Jeremiah who is described within the book and to whom at least some of its words are ascribed by it. How one makes these decisions will depend on how one understands the activity of prophecy, the status of the biblical text and the right way to approach it.[x]


Here the text as we have it is given priority while the historical context from which it emerged and with which it deals is taken seriously as a matrix for its interpretation. It is accepted that there are limits to how much we can ever know about what sections of the text originate with Jeremiah the man or about when and where the book was put into its final form. Where we can know these things they can help us in our search for understanding but the whole book as we have it as taken as authoritative.[xi]

Prophecy, nation and empire


This approach makes it essential that one states a view of the relationship between prophecy and history understood in the widest sense. Prophetic witness takes place within history but insofar as it has canonical status it acquires a trans-historical status. That is to say that the events on which it reflects and within which it strives for influence are relevant to its meaning but that meaning can only be released for us by our typological reading back from the person of Christ. The meaning of the text for us is determined Christologically, that is to say it is salvation-historical.[xii]



This does not imply an abandonment of or indifference to temporal or secular history. Our typological-Christological reading does not release us from secular history but rather gives us a way of grasping hold of the revelation of God within it as reported by the Scriptural record. The concrete historical reference of the text is not accidental, any more than is Christ’s human particularity as the man Jesus.


The working out of the God’s rule in the history of the nations and empires is accessible to the church through the typological identification of Church, Christ and Israel. This is the guiding idea that determines this reading of the text.

People, monarchy and God


The locus of prophetic witness is Israel as God’s chosen covenant people. The implied hearer of the prophetic word is always Israel and the framework that makes it comprehensible is always covenant.[xiii] The nature and scope of the covenant is a matter of considerable complexity, though. In the OT God enters into a series of covenantal relationships with a succession of partners and these covenants overlap and interact. Here four of these need to be noted: the Noahic covenant which includes all the nations, the Abrahamic covenant that establishes Israel as the chosen people, the Davidic covenant that defines the divinely authorised monarchy, and the coming “covenant of the heart promised by Jeremiah.[xiv]


It is tempting to read Jeremiah’s promise of the writing of the Law on the hearts of the people (Jer. 31:31-34) as replacing and superseding the Davidic covenant that makes of Israel a political entity defined by the royal presence in Jerusalem, especially given that no Davidide was to rule there again after the exile. The text itself, however, does not quite allow this, and nor does the present determination to read Jeremiah typologically. There are passages that clearly promise the restoration of the House of David to the throne (e.g. Jer. 33:17-19), and these have always been important to the Christian reading of Jeremiah.


This continuing promise of a covenantal king to mediate God’s sovereign rule is one of the key routes by which we can read Jesus back into the OT and gain present access to the revelation of God’s nature and will to be found there .

Nebuchadnezzar’s servanthood

Empire and the sovereignty of God

This revelation in respect of human political order can be sought in prophetic speech about how political Israel should position itself in regard to empire. One might expect, given the special status of Israel and of the Davidic monarchy, that these entities would be represented as the special instruments of God’s purpose in the realm of power politics. If they represent God on earth, in some way, then surely God’s plan would be worked out through their action. This, though, is not always God’s purpose as the prophetic witness reveals it.


At key moments in the biblical narrative other actors are called forward to do God’s work. two such actors stand out and in each case they are not mere nations but multi-national imperial powers: these are Babylon and especially Nebuchadnezzar and Persia and especially Cyrus (the somewhat more ambiguous case of Assyria here being left aside)


Of course there are limits to the role of these empires. In the Bible they are never discussed in isolation from their interaction with Israel and their legitimacy is derived from their enactment of God’s purposes for and through Israel. When Nebuchadnezzar comes to Jerusalem or Cyrus to Babylon they come in response to God’s will and command, whether they know it or not, and it is this dependence that the prophetic witness explains and explores.

Israel and empire


This imperial commissioning and legitimation derives from the nature and behaviour of Israel. Jeremiah’s call on Israel to submit to Babylon does not invoke anything inherent in the nature of Babylon itself, rather it points to the divine enactment of a purpose for Israel through “Nebuchadnezzar my servant” (Jer. 25:9, 27:7, 43:10). The Babylonian imperial project punishes and corrects Israel which has betrayed its God through idolatrous worship and ethical and political failure. Bringing Israel back to its true identity as God’s partner requires the action of Nebuchadnezzar.


When this purpose had been achieved, when the exiled remnant had ripened, Babylon’s legitimacy is at an end. There is no “Babylonian covenant”, the servanthood of Nebuchadnezzar is derivative and temporary. Hence the call for the overthrow and demolition of Babylon and the return of the exiles. The exile has prepared the people for a new stage in their role as bearers of God’s presence and God’s revelation to the creation.


This does not mean, though, restoration of full political autonomy to Israel. God’s purpose for Israel is now enacted through the action of Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1). This movement is not fully explicit in Jeremiah, being more thematic in the Book of Isaiah, and this absence in Jeremiah is itself suggestive. In Jeremiah the promise of a “Branch from David’s line” (Jer. 33:15) is explicit and definitive. The restoration of a political power directly and permanently representing God’s power on earth remains on the horizon.

Meaning in exile


This theme of political restitution, though, stands in tension with another in the text of Jeremiah. This is the “covenant of the heart” (Jer. 31:31-34) which has exercised such power and fascination in the development of Christian thinking. This theme itself, I would like to suggest, is related to the idea of the Babylonian exiles as the “good figs”, as the primary bearers of the continuing mission of Israel (Jer. 24)[xv].


The separation of the people from the land, the temple and the monarchy which comes about with the exile, combined with the imperative to retain their identity as the people brought into being by the Abrahamic covenant enables a relocation of the primary site of God’s presence from a geographical to an anthropological matrix. However the retention of the promise of return and restitution prevents this from becoming a flight from history and embodiment towards a purely spiritualised or interiorised mysticism that might dissolve the community into individual quest for unity with the divine. By remaining Jews in Babylon the exiles enable a new development that retains its continuity with the story of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.


This enables a recognition of the exile as a stage in the working out of Israel’s mission and not as a termination of interruption of it. This theological interpretation of historical experience is a key aspect of prophetic activity and education in it is vital to the way in which Scripture can be creatively authoritative in the still ongoing historical realisation of Christ’s redeeming work.

Conclusion – Jeremiah’s word to the Church

Exile and the rule of God

If the Church can be identified with Israel through the mediation of Christ what does the prophetic word of Jeremiah have to say to her? It has been suggested here that temporal sovereignty rests ultimately with God in Christ but that its enactment uses servants chosen and called by God for that specific task. It has further been shown that this mode of servanthood requires no explicit knowledge or intention on the part of the servant so called. Finally it has been suggested that this mode of servanthood can be grasped theologically only in relation to the people chosen to be God’s peculiar people.


The position of the Church can be seen to have features in common with that of Israel in exile, but the question then necessarily arises of from where the Church can be seen as exiled. There is no immediate correlate of the promised land for the Church. For some contemporary Christian thinkers the lost world of Christendom in which the Church was coterminous with the society and the state was its secular partner represents the land to which return should be wished.


Reading Jeremiah provides some helpful correctives to this perspective. First both before and after the exile God’s rule is enacted through political power external to the people and indifferent to their God. Secondly the promise of a restored monarchy remains unfulfilled after the return to Jerusalem and the construction of the second Temple.


The covenant of the heart, the eschatological vision of an unmediated and direct rule of God is the promise the Christian must appropriate via Christ’s fulfilment of the Law.

The promise of restitution


This promise is to be realised in and through history, the prophetic insistence on God’s action in the nations and empires demonstrates this. It is not, though, to be realised through the action of those who consciously orient themselves to God’s will. These people, Israel and now the Church, have their role to play, but this role is primarily one of covenant loyalty in worship and prayer, with right action flowing from it.


The political establishment of divinely appointed and aligned sovereign power may at times have a part to play in God’s purpose but the Scriptural text points clearly to the reality that this will not always be so. In some cases God can choose and send a Nebuchadnezzar or a Cyrus to do God’s work, and the work given them to do may not always be comfortable or agreeable to God’s people. It will, however, always derive its theological meaning from its relation to them.


In order for the Church to be what it is called to be, the body of Christ and the new people of God, it has to recall and proclaim God’s promise. The promise of a return to a land for which the ancient promised land is merely a type, the land of milk and honey, of the realisation of the peace and plenty figured in the prophetic texts of eschatological yearning.


There are times when the historical processes by which God prepares the way fall to the chosen people but there are other times when the people in exile have to wait for the time when God’s chosen servant, of whom Cyrus is the type, appears to bring about the movement towards the land of promise.



BRUEGGEMANN, W. 1988. To pluck up, to tear down : a commentary on the book of Jeremiah 1-25, Grand Rapids

Edinburgh, W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ;Handsel Press.

BRUEGGEMANN, W. 1997. Theology of the Old Testament : testimony, dispute, advocacy, Minneapolis, Fortress Press.

BRUEGGEMANN, W. 2008. Old Testament theology : an introduction, Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press.

CARROLL, R. P. 1986. Jeremiah a commentary, London, SCM.

DULLES, A. R. 1987. Models of the church, Garden City, N.Y. ; London, Image Books.

KECK, L. E. 1994. The new interpreter’s Bible : general articles & introduction, commentary, & reflections for each book of the Bible, including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books : in twelve volumes [and index], Nashville, Abingdon Press.

LOHR, J. N. 2011. Taming the untamable: Christian attempts to make Israel’s election universal. Horizons in Biblical Theology, 33, 25-33.

MCKANE, W. 1986. A critical and exegetical commentary on Jeremiah, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark.

MUILENBURG, J. 1965. Abraham and the nations : blessing and world history. Interpretation, 19, 387-398.

PERDUE, L. G. 2005. Reconstructing Old Testament theology : after the collapse of history, Minneapolis, Minn., Fortress Press.

SAKENFELD, K. D. & ABINGDON PRESS. 2006. The New Interpreter’s dictionary of the Bible, Nashville, Tenn., Abingdon Press.

STROUP, G. W. 1983. The relevance of the munus triplex for Reformed theology and ministry. Austin Seminary Bulletin (Faculty ed.), 98, 22-32.

WALTKE, B. K. & YU, C. 2007. An Old Testament theology : an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach, Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan.

WATSON, F. 1997. Text and truth : redefining Biblical theology, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark./

[i]     This scheme of classification draws on that of Leo Perdue in (Perdue, 2005) p 15-16

[ii]    e.g. (Watson, 1997) pp 179-224 and (Brueggemann, 2008)pp 1-116

[iii]   (Perdue, 2005) pp 36-39

[iv]   (Brueggemann, 1997) pp 16-38

[v]    Find reference for typological reading

[vi]   On models of the church setting “body of Christ” ecclesiology in context see (Dulles, 1987 esp. Ch3)

[vii]  See the discussion of Christian readings of Israel’s election in (Lohr, 2011)

[viii] See the very suggestive account in (Muilenburg, 1965)

[ix]    See (Stroup, 1983) for an account

[x]     (Perdue, 1985) illustrates the variety of ways in which the interpretation of Jeremiah may be approached

[xi]    For a brief overview of scholariship on the composition of the text see (Keck, 1994) Vol. VI pp 563-566

[xii]   For a helpful account of Christological readings of the OT see (Waltke, 2007) pp 143-161

[xiii]  See (Keck, 1994) Vol. VI 19-20 for an interesting discussion of prophecy, covenant and empire

[xiv] (Sakenfeld, 2006) Vol. I pp767-777

[xv]  (Carroll, 1986) pp482-486; (Brueggemann, 1988) pp208-212; (McKane, 1986) pp 605-617


Ministry and culture


The title of this essay asks that change in social culture and ministry be brought into relation and the implications of their relation be explored with respect to a third term reflective practice.

“Ministry” is too various to be adequately covered in all its manifestations so the focus will be on ordained ministry within the Reformed tradition, with its distinctive emphasis on the priesthood of all believers and ministry as a function of the whole people of God. It is not suggested that this is the only definition of ministry only that some such specification is required for a coherent response.

The complex term “changes in social culture” itself brings into conjunction three ideas: “change”, “social”, and “culture” whose relationships are complex and multi-faceted. The terms “culture” and “society” when used together will be taken to identify a “general culture” which forms the context for a set of “sub cultures” which can neither be identified with nor separated from it.

It is suggested here that the key responsibility of ordained ministry is as the custodian of the culture of the church, which regarded from the viewpoint of contemporary “general culture” is a “sub culture”, but which from within has to regard itself in a different way. It is further argued that all culture is constantly in a process of change and that, therefore ordained ministry has at its heart the guidance of social change.

In this context reflective practice for the minister is about self-consciousness regarding the special status of the culture of the church from within Christian faith and the placing of this culture in relation both to its own distinctive history and grounding in revelation and in the context of the wider cultural setting within which it lives.


Ordained Ministry in the Reformed tradition

In the Reformed tradition there is a characteristic refusal of priestly or ontological understandings of ordination in favour of a functional understanding. The minister is called to exercise particular gifts and responsibilities on behalf of the people of God. This distinguishes the Reformed both from the priestly tradition of episcopal churches with their emphasis on apostolic succession and from the Anabaptist refusal of all ordained ministry.[i]

Central to the Reformed ministry of Word and Sacrament is the church as the elected people of God in covenantal continuity with Israel. The emphasis on election and on the distinctiveness of the chosen people is not unique to the Reformed tradition but occupies an especially important position within it. Ministry is first and foremost the responsibility of the people.[ii]

Thus Reformed ministers are “called” by a congregation rather than being sent by the Church. Ministry has no validity outside the community of saints. Reformed ministry is constituted enabling the people’s ministry in and to the world. One symptom of this conception of ministry is seen in Calvin’s insistence that the church building be locked outside times of public worship.[iii]

The role of the ordained minister is on the one hand to cultivate and exercise special gifts in the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments and on the other to act as the mediating factor between the local congregation and the wider church. While the congregation plays a central role in Reformed ecclesiology its mainstream has always been clear that the Church is universal and exercises oversight in regard to the local church. This finds its clearest expression in the Presbyterian systems of church government but is present to some extent in most of the congregational varieties of Reformed ecclesiology.[iv]

The minister’s role is to contribute through exposition of the word and through sacramental discipline to the shaping of congregational life in conformity to the will of God.

What is culture?

Culture is here understood to be the set of symbolic and representational practices through which meaning is constructed by communities. The term culture has a complex history.

An idea of culture as a distinct set of practices and artefacts was important to romanticism and asserted a hierarchy of forms of human life and expression.[v] This use of the term, related to its origins in agriculture and horticulture saw “culture” as enabling a rise to more complete and perfect states. Culture as formative is implied  but it restricts this to a particular kind of subjectivity seen as normative for human beings as such. Over against this there developed a notion of culture within anthropology that differs in two respects. On the one hand it became more inclusive including all practices that create shared meaning; on the other it recognised a plurality of cultures, each with its set of meanings and structures, integrated within itself but different from others. While no explicit hierarchy of these cultures is necessitated by this the assumptions of modernisation implied such an ordering.[vi]

More recently a “post-modern” approach to culture has emerged which questions the assumption within anthropology of the integrated and unitary nature of “culture”. The anthropological understanding of culture as manifold and as all-pervasive is adopted but the assumption that each culture is internally integrated and that the boundaries between cultures can be clearly marked are each questioned.

The view that emerges is one of a differentiated and inter-related set of communities of meaning, the membership of which may overlap and which is each a site of contestation and negotiation. Characteristic of this post-modern discourse is an interest in culture as a field within which power is exercised and resisted. Critical to present purposes is the insight that cultures are not firmly bounded, uniform, or static. “Culture” is a set of cultures which interact in more or less intensive ways. This is understood to involve the whole range of symbolic practice, behaviours and beliefs that constitute meaning; that each individual will participate in a range of overlapping sub-cultures (e.g. of work, church, voluntary organisations, leisure activities, family and neighbourhood network) that construct identity in different, although not necessarily conflicting ways. [vii]

The entire set of sub-cultures within a particular society will be part of a “social” or “general” culture which forms the context within which they operate. There will be shared social norms defined at the level of the institutions and other formations that provide a common or shared experience across the range of sub-cultures. Examples in contemporary Britain would be the institutions of the state, for example taxation, criminal justice, state education, national health service and the benefits system, mass communication media, especially television but also print media and radio, and workplaces. In these contexts individuals’ sub-cultural identities are placed together and common norms, rules, forms of behaviour and sets of meaning negotiated or imposed. A number of recent examples have shown the criminal justice system supporting other public institutions in asserting a common culture of acceptance of homosexual practice against that formed in counter-cultural religious communities which do not tolerate such practice.


Culture and change

The anthropological understanding of culture emphasises difference between and homogeneity within cultures; each is invariant over the time as a static structure of meaning. In recent work this timeless understanding of culture has given way to one more interested in change as the result of the exercise and resistance of power. The idea of culture as a variegated and conflictual field of interaction gives rise to a tendency to see change as endemic in culture.

This is intensified by a widely shared view that the pace of cultural change is increasing and the change itself becoming more profound and far reaching. In earlier theories (or perhaps periods) of culture there was an emphasis on continuity, as culture shaping each generation of individuals to carry on ways of life inherited from the previous generation, there was a strong link between culture and tradition. Cultures as internally consistent and coherent entities or traditions formed the identities and characters of those inducted into them and change to tradition was seen as exceptional.[viii]

However such stability and continuity has always been exceptional (examples might be very isolated social groups that persisted with pre-agricultural forms of life in habitats that insulated them from contact with the wider human world). Almost all cultures have evolved along with the other (primarily technological and economic) social structures that can be conceptually distinguished from them within the overall social structure.

No culture is internally undifferentiated and change will arise through the interaction between sub-cultures and the process of development within each of them driven by their internal differentiation. All parts of the “social culture” are interacting with one another and engaged in an internal conversation about how they should develop themselves. [ix]

Culture and the church

From one perspective the universal church is a set of sub-cultures linked together by whatever makes the church church. Different church cultures are more or less immersive, filling a greater or lesser part of their members lives. This perspective is that of the anthropologist who studies church communities with to determine what their cultural structures look like, treating them as he or she would any other community with a set of shared values, beliefs and practices. This perspective is an illuminating one and has much to tell us about the nature of our churches.[x]

There is another perspective, though, which sees the church, or the gospel. as pitted against “culture”. This argues that culture, the values and norms which govern human social life, is what, or is part of what, the gospel acts to save human beings from. Culture is fallen and the gospel opposes it. This perspective, articulated for example by Karl Barth, sees the gospel as the breaking in to human life of the revelation of a divine message that is utterly foreign to it. To the extent that the church is or becomes a human culture it fails to be true to this message.[xi]

Opposing this view is the argument that the gospel must be heard within culture and for this reason it must find that within the culture with which it can connect. This is famously articulated by Barth’s contemporary Paul Tillich in his theory of “correlation” in which the questions posed by the period are answered by the gospel in their own terms. [xii]

This polarity of culture and the gospel and different articulations of the way in which they should be brought into relation to one another is often held to be central dialectic of modern theology, and various proposals have been made for a typology of modern theology organised by it. [xiii]

More recently an alternative mode of thinking about culture and gospel, influenced in various ways and to various degrees by post-modern thought, has emerged often referred to as “post-liberalism” and most closely identified with George Lindbeck. Lindbeck has proposed that rather than seeing gospel and culture as poles that have to be bought into relation we see Christianity in terms of cultural-linguistic practice. In particular he argues that the revelation we have received is a narrative rather than a set of propositions and that it cannot be recast adequately in propositional form. Further this narrative, while centrally the narrative of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, includes both the story of Israel and the story of the church. [xiv]

The participant in the life of the church does not only hear about the narrative of God’s dealings with God’s people, he or she enters into the story by absorbing and transmitting the culture of the church, which formed by the narrative embodies it. The church’s culture is the revelation of God. This does not mean that any particular instance of church culture can be identified with God, rather that it is only through entering into that culture that God can be known. This tendency to see church culture as essential to knowledge of God has lead some critics to accuse the post-liberals of a tendency towards sectarian withdrawal from the common social world, but here it is suggested that this move towards conceptualising the Christian revelation in cultural terms opens fruitful possibilities for the reflective minister in thinking about how to respond to and engage with cultural change within and beyond the church.

One caveat is necessary; it is not possible from within a Christian framework simply to think of the church as a sub culture, since this would neglect the otherness of God. It is essential to Christianity that God cannot be identified with any worldly phenomenon. Christian orthodoxy settled on an account of the relationship of God to creation that makes God transcendent. Our knowledge of God is based on God’s revelation, not on any intrinsic ability of our own to discover God. The extent of our partial or analogical knowledge of God prior to or apart from revelation is debated within orthodox Christianity but not the necessity of revelation in Christ to our achievement of the knowledge of salvation.

This implies that even if one accepts the post-liberal insight that revelation takes place in and as a sub culture the grounding of this in revelation remains. For Lindbeck this revelation is primarily narrative in form, it takes the form of the story of Christ in the context of the story of Israel, transmitted in and through the story of the church.

Reflective practice, culture, and ordained ministry in a Reformed church

If it is accepted that Christian life is centred on the formation of a Christian culture by immersion in  a community shaped by the narrative of God’s relationship with the people of God then the work of the ordained minister is, from a human perspective, cultural work. The minister, through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments has a set of responsibilities for ensuring that the culture that is formed is in accord with the revealed will of God. The work of communicating the meaning of Scripture for the people, the traditional centre of Reformed ministry, and the proper conduct of the sacramental rites are thus understood as aspects of a more holistic task, the formation of the church as a culture which will form its people.

Further, on the understanding that culture (and tradition) is never unitary or static but always diverse and evolving, this task is always a creative and innovative one. Neither the sub culture of the church nor the cultural context within which it is placed have ever been at rest. Every generation is faced with the challenge of forming its changing culture in a way faithful to the gospel it is to embody. This is a task for the all members of the church but it falls most especially on the ordained minister, as the one whose task it is to interpret revelation on behalf of the church.

In times of accelerated cultural change this is particularly problematic. The church, unless withdrawn from the world as a self-enclosed sect, is immersed in this context of rapid and profound cultural transformation. This means that the two temptations of over-eager adaptation to norms drawn from more dominant cultural spheres (e.g. politics, or science, or humanitarian ethics) or a refusal to admit to the necessity of change in the name of an idealisation of an imagined past of purity and harmony become particularly acute. The sub culture of the church is bound to evolve rapidly in such a period and without profound faith in the capability of changing in accord with God’s will the temptations referred to will come between God and God’s people.

It is here that the ability to internalise with real profundity the way in which the tradition lives in the present is essential for the minister. This is the sense in which reflective practice is required, the ability to fuse together an understanding of the way in which God’s will becomes known to us in Scripture and in the history of the church as a cultural linguistic tradition, encompassing liturgy, theology, mission and prayer. A sense of the narrative structure of Christianity as a culture and its insertion into an evolving cultural context, allied to a sense of the place of this culture as an instrument of God not to be identified with God’s presence in the world is what will enable the minister to play his or her proper part in the evolution of the church.


This essay has argued that changes in social culture do not so much effect as constitute ministry, that influencing the way the culture of Christianity changes is the core of ministerial work. This argument bases itself on a post-liberal understanding of Christianity as a cultural linguistic phenomenon (looked at from the side of humanity) and from an understanding of culture as always and necessarily in a process of evolution.


It has further argued that Christianity  must, from within, be viewed as a special case of culture, one within which the human is transcended and the will of God revealed. This means that the minister, as a primary actor in the evolution of that culture, must self-consciously act in it as God’s agent, seeking to discern in the revelatory history of Christian culture, instantiated principally in scripture but essentially also in the history of the church what the will of God is for the direction of development of the culture of Christianity today.



Bevans, S., Models of Contextual Theology (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2002)

Browning, D., A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991)

Cady, L.E. ‘Loosening the Category that Binds: Modern “Religion” and the Promise of Cultural Studies’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Daveney, S. G. ‘Theology and the Turn to Cultural Analysis’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Giddens, A., The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1991)

Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods (London: SCM, 2005)

Healy, N., Church, World, and the Christian Life (Cambridge: CUP, 2000)

Matthis, D. ‘Introduction’ in With Calvin in the Theatre of God ed Piper and Matthis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) p22-3

Leith, J.H., Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: John Knox, 1981)

Lindbeck, G., The Nature of Doctrine (London: SPCK, 1984)

Placer, W.C., ‘Postliberal Theology’ in The Modern Theologians ed. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006)

Reno, R.R., in the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002)

Rice, H.L. And Huffstutler, J.C., Reformed Worship (Louisville: Geneva, 2001)

Tracy, D Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1978)

Ward, P Participation and Mediation (London: SCM, 2008)

[i]    See Leith Introduction to the Reformed Tradition (Louisville: John Knox, 1981) pp70-88 for an overview of the ethos of the Reformed tradition

[ii]   Reformed Worship (Louisville: Geneva, 2001)  pp6-8 gives an overview of relation of minister and community

[iii]            Matthis, D. ‘Introduction’ in With Calvin in the Theatre of God ed Piper and Matthis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010) p22-3

[iv]   Leith Introduction 145-171

[v]    Ward, P Participation and Mediation (London: SCM, 2008) p155

[vi]             Daveney, S. G. ‘Theology and the Turn to Cultural Analysis’ in Converging on Culture ed. Brown, Daveney and Tanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001) p4-5

[vii]  Daveney ‘Theology’ p6-7

[viii] Giddens, A., The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 1991) 154

[ix]  Daveney ‘Introduction’ 7

[x]   Browning, D., A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) pp77-82

[xi]  Tracy, D Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury, 1978) pp27-31

[xii]  Graham, E., Walton, H., and Ward, F., Theological Reflection: Methods (London: SCM, 2005) pp154-158

[xiii] Ward Participation and Mediation 37-39

[xiv] Placer, W.C., ‘Postliberal Theology’ in The Modern Theologians ed. Ford (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006) gives an excellent summary of postliberal thought