Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Church and Gospel: Which determines which?

Reading the first pages of prolegomena in Robert Jensen's Systematic Theology is refreshingly brisk and painless work.  In situating the task of systematic theology within the self-understanding of the church, he gives a simple account of the church as the community formed by the expansion of the gospel from those who directly witnessed the risen Christ and who both recognized the universal import of what they witnessed and moreover were directly told by Christ to go and tell the nations, to the progressive expansion of people hearing that message and thereby becoming proclaimers of it to new hearers.

But fairly quickly he makes what I think is a problematic move:
It is the historically continuous community, which in this way began and perdures, that her own linguistic custom calls "the church."  "Church" and "gospel" therefore mutually determine each other.  Whether we are to say that God uses the gospel to gather the church for himself, or that God provides the church to carry the gospel to the world, depends entirely on the direction of thought in a context.  (Jensen, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, pp. 4-5).  
Is this right?  Does the church determine the gospel in the same way or even to the same degree that the gospel determines the church?  To say yes would seem to lead to all kinds of problems, most obviously the problem that since the church is a continuous community and therefore a community spanning generations, centuries, and even millennia of cultural change, as the church inescapably changes with the times we would have to say that the gospel itself changes.

Of course, if in reaction to this we decide that gospel and church must be conceived so that the gospel is entirely free vis-a-vis the church, able to promote itself through other means just as easily as through the church, then we would have to hold out the possibility of multiple churches, multiple communities that the gospel calls into being with no underlying unity obligating them to work toward making that unity visible.

It would seem that the solution is to hold gospel and church inseparably together but in a consistently ordered way so that the gospel is the determinant of the church and not the other way around.  What the gospel is is the message of Jesus Christ through which the Holy Spirit gathers a people together for God, while the church is the Spirit's servant chosen to continue that message, but always under a unilateral conditioning by the message, not mutually conditioning it.  The gospel and the Church are bound together in inseparable unity, but as a unity of master and servant, not substance and container.  The master has chosen this servant and carries out his work uniquely through this servant's service, but this service is always freely chosen by the master.  Conceived as a relation of substance and container, we would have to say that though it is the value of the substance that determines the need and worth of the container, the container is what actually gives shape to the substance.  However, conceived as master and servant, it is the master's command that determines the servants's service; the servant's service does not determine the master's command.


  1. I like what you're doing here, Adam, but I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with what Jenson is saying (granted, his wording is unfortunate). His point is not that the church actually constitutes the gospel as a form does an essence. In fact, on the previous page, he states: "The purpose that constitutes and distinguishes the church and IN SERVICE OF WHICH the church needs to think is maintenance of a particular message, called 'the gospel'." Even in the passage you quoted, he alludes to the fact that the church "began and perdures" on the basis of the apostolic witness mentioned in the preceding paragraphs. So when he says that church and gospel are mutually determinative, he can't mean that the substance of the gospel must be in-formed by the shape of the particular church in which it obtains. Rather, could he not mean something like: just as there is no church without the gospel (since the church has no reason for being w/o it), so is there no such thing as gospel without a church (since what the gospel does is create a historically perduring community which exists in its service)? Consequently, and depending of the doctrinal context, you can profitably look at the church from the perspective of the gospel just as you can look at the gospel from the perspective of the church. If that's all he's saying, then I don't see a problem here.

  2. I don't see a problem in the meaning if he means what you have said, and I'm pretty sure he does, but that wording, the reciprocal form he speaks of it having, can, I think, cause material problems.

  3. Yeah - agreed. It'll be interesting to see if you think that bears out as you continue to read.

  4. As usual, I'm thinking about the words. The word church means the organization ordained by God to carry the message and so is a servant as Adam said. But the Church is the body of Christ Himself in a powerful mystical way that we ever only dimly comprehend and perceive. So part of the ambiguity is the (sometimes unconscious) sliding back and forth between the two definitions

  5. I wonder as a Lutheran what role the communicato idomatum is playing for Jenson? I think the point, Adam, that you note on substance and container is a good observation; and one that Calvin wanted to avoid, of course, through his extra calvinisticum (which seeks to avoid the substance container analogy). At least the language, as you've shared it, from, Jenson, Adam; does seem imprecise, and does seem to imply a sort of contingency between the church and the Gospel wherein the Gospel would not be w/o the church. But that seems wrong, since the Gospel is contingent upon nothing else than the free self-determined life of God Himself.

    I'm probably over-reading this, Adam. But I do see how you came to your questions based on the quote.