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Defending the Faith: Christian Apologetics in a Non-Christian World

by Thomas C. Oden


I feel deeply honored to be asked to speak to this distinguished evangelical colloquy on how the faith once delivered to the saints is to be rightly guarded, reasonably championed, and wisely advocated in our special historic situation. I find it useful to divide this broad assignment into several decisive apologetic issues:

  1. Is the Willingness to Suffer for Truth Intrinsic to the Christian Understanding of Truth?
  2. How is the Concept of the "non-Christian World" Best Understood Evangelically?
  3. What is Happening in the Confessing Evangelical Movements Within the North American Mainline?
  4. Is the History of Exegesis Recoverable After a Century of Reductionist Historicism?
  5. At What Point Will Evangelicals Learn to Kick the Post out of an Ultramodernity Camouflaging as "Postmodern"?
  6. Whither Postmodern Paleo-orthodoxy: Where is the Holy Spirit Leading Evangelical Apologetics?
  7. Will the Church Endure? Reappraising the Question of Indefectibility

We are attempting to answer these questions within the framework of the consensus fidelium, celebrating two millennia of Christian exegesis, amid a great cloud of witnesses:

1. Is the Willingness to Suffer for Truth Intrinsic to the Christian Understanding of Truth?

Is the willingness to put one's body on the line for the truth an indispensable premise of the very concept of truth in evangelical testimony? To speak of truth without willingness to suffer for the truth is backhandedly to debase the truth.

No Christian teacher is worth listening to who is not willing to suffer if need be for the truth that is being taught. [1] The readiness to suffer for the sake of the truth is intrinsic to the whole fabric of Christian living, and hence teaching, and thus not an optional part of the equation of the equipping of the public teacher of Christianity. [2]

Paul's teaching was personally validated by his willingness to be "exposed to hardship, even to the point of being shut up like a common criminal; but the word of God is not shut up" (2 Tim. 2:9). Some hearers will find in the truth of the one who was "nailed to the cross" merely a "stone of stumbling" and "folly" (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 8:17, 18). Jesus did not hesitate to make it clear that his disciples must be prepared to "be handed over for punishment and execution; and men of all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me." [3]

The truth, Christianly understood, is an event in history, a birth, death, and resurrection, God's own personal coming to us in mercy and grace, a Word spoken through a personal life lived, a personal event in which we are called personally to participate. To tell the truth rightly is to follow the one who is truth.

The "right method" for guarding Christian truth was set forth in Luther's three concise instructions: oratio, meditatio, tentatio,,first by prayer, then by textual meditation, but decisively by suffering temptation and the experience of testing through affliction). Listen to him poignantly acknowledge how much he owed to his enemies: "Through the raging of the devil they have so buffeted, distressed, and terrified me that they have made me a fairly good theologian, which I would not have become without them." [4]

These plenary sessions have been asking:

2. How is the Concept of the "non-Christian World" Best Understood Evangelically?

My first impulse is to invert the question by unpacking its premise: In what sense is the world in which we are privileged to attest grace rightly described as a "non-Christian world"? "Non-Christian world" cannot mean that the world which is God's gift now exists without God. It cannot mean that the work of the Spirit is totally eclipsed or dysfunctional within the estranged world, just because it has been willfully spurned. It cannot mean that the world lacks the accompaniment of the crucified and risen Son, or the governance of the all-wise God.

It can only mean the world that has defiantly decided to proceed as if the Incarnate Lord had not come in our midst, and has no abiding relevance for the world. It can only mean, for Christian apologetic reasoning, that unbelievers have falsely posited a world that lacks the justifying grace of the Son and from which the sanctifying fruits of the Spirit are absent. It can only point to a world which lives in despair, not realizing its reception of redeeming love by the Incarnate living God. It lives already under the judgment of the Holy One whose judgment will be made complete on the last day.

Meanwhile the actual fallen world, the ongoing cosmos that runs on twenty-four hour standard time, is still in the process of being reconciled and its sin overcome by the crucified and risen Redeemer. "Actual fallen world" refers to a penultimate world situation which has not yet come to itself in repentance and faith, an actual world that still despairs over its failure to be itself before God.

Apologetics within that sort of posited world must be careful not to take that world in its fallenness more seriously than it takes that world's decisive redemption. Apologetics within that sort of world which is hypothesized as if it were still unmet by the living God, as if it were still awaiting the Christ, must be careful not to be swallowed up by the power of the unredeemed imagination as to its own finality.

To reify is to treat an abstraction as if substantially existing, to attribute reality to something. The reification of the concept, "non-Christian world", invites the critical qualifier that the world is and remains God's, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son that all who believe on him might have eternal life. This world is already recipient of God's saving redemption in Jesus Christ, a gift given for all and appropriable by all who repent and believe. Christian apologetics in the heat of its temporal struggle amid the fallen world is forever tempted to overestimate the fleeting temporary power of the fallen world.

Christian apologetics has the privilege of speaking to the fallen world not merely in reference to fallen humanity's assumptions about itself, but more so in reference to God's own assumption of humanity through the Son. This communication always takes place within a particular Zeitgeist. But the Zeitgeist cannot itself dictate the terms of salvation, or redefine the vocabulary of the apostolic testimony, so that one concedes to the Zeitgeist the absolute truth of all its premises, many of which are false, and only then begins to seek despairingly to find some tiny opening for the light of Christian truth. That is not contextualization but abandonment of mission.

Christian apologetics, just as Christian caregiving, has the task of reaching out for the fallen and hungry precisely where they are fallen and hungry, yet without encouraging the demonic pretense that this fallenness is the last word.

Due to its specific commission to communicate with the fallen world in its own language, Christian apologetics is continually tempted to magnify the very power and vitality of the fallen world which almighty God is acting to redeem. With the best of intentions such efforts may tend to forget the incomparable power of the One who has acted decisively to save the world from its fallenness. By excessive attentiveness to the transient power of the fallen world, the fatigued apologist may be suckered into becoming inattentive to the majesty of that One from whom all things come and into Whom all things return, in Whom there is no shadow of change or turning. So the praise of God is inadvertently diminished in the interest of taking seriously the fallen world. Under the noble motivation of taking the world seriously, grace is trivialized.

Faith encounters that conjectured world with the real world as God's gift, which when fallen, has been redeemed. The apostolic testimony within that real world does better to offer its own gifts to the world than to borrow hungrily from the world's skewed self-understandings. This requires apologetics to attend to its own texts and share its own distinctive gifts. Faith need not be thrown off track by the presumed vitality of a dying world, the imagined power of an evanescent world.

Another aspect of my assignment in concluding this series of plenary sessions is to try to survey and describe the apologetic situation of the theological scene in North America. So I want to focus now upon a special part of that arena:

3. What is Happening in the Confessing Evangelical Movements Within the North American Mainline?

I speak as an evangelical apologist within North American mainline Protestantism. By mainline Protestantism I mean those communions whose leadership has for several decades been deeply entangled in cultural accommodations, doctrinal softening, hypertoleration on matters of doctrine, and in many cases, political messianisms, utopian social experimentalism, protomarxiam economic conjectures, absolute egalitarian sentimentalism, bureaucratic ecumenism, regulatory politics, and the idealized fantasies of control-economies.

I speak particularly and penitently of my own United Methodist Church, but the same observations apply to the Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Canada, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians and to some lesser degree the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.

In each of these communions there has been a three-decade radical hemorrhaging of vitality, membership, and witness. But more promising in the longer view, within each there is an active movement of the Holy Spirit, and a growing renewal of classic Christian teaching, a confessing movement, such as the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church, Disciples for Renewal, Pro Ecclesia, Christians for Biblical Renewal, Presbyterians for Renewal, and the reform movement within the United Church of Canada.

These Scripture-centered accountability movements are at this juncture of history relatively small but gaining rapid momentum. Their journals are thriving. The expectation is increasing that they may soon affect major theological and polity reforms within the oldline. Every event which attempts to Re-imagine God in reductionist terms as a bland reflection of modernity's excesses only serves as an encouragement to these resistance movements and stimulates their determination to confess anew the Sonship and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Hence these times call not merely for generating moral outrage and repeating negative grievances, but for asking how the Spirit is calling the faithful within academic and church communities to work constructively together toward practically reclaiming stolen church bureaucracies and renegade ecclesial establishments.

The promising future of mainline Protestant evangelicals has potentially grace-laden repercussions for the future of both Catholic and Orthodox traditions the world over. And a deepened, chastened, penitent new conversation between Evangelicals who are inside the mainline churches and those Evangelicals in the dissenting traditions is being prepared by the Holy Spirit. Most promising is the potential dialogue between Reformed evangelicals and evangelicals of the Anglican-Wesleyan tradition.

Can evangelicals and doctrinal traditionalists and classicists within the mainline churches come together cooperatively to form a plausible accord which effectively resists the apostacizing temptations so endemic within the mainline? Can they unite with a trustable and viable agenda for reclaiming the church and rescuing it from its slippery doctrinal slopes? Can a trajectory be set that will neither slide toward heterodoxy and imprudence nor become inwardly turned toward resentment and reactionary defensiveness? Can those who hold steadfastly to classic Christian teaching find a hopeful voice to challenge the long dominant hegemony of doctrinal latitudinarians, hypertolerationists, egalitarian activists, neopagan activists, and pantheists? Can loyal stay-inners cope with ongoing temptations to walk away and abandon the struggle? These questions are being contested at a thousand different levels.

A massive moral crisis is now facing the deteriorating liberal mainline church leadership, its academic institutions, bureaucracies and local churches. It is time to reconceive a common vision sharable by evangelicals, moderates and traditionalists for repossession of those church institutions that have been either abandoned or neglected or in some cases ideologically hijacked. It is time to set feasible goals for the rehabilitation of a tradition-deprived church. How do we go about reclaiming our identity, our institutions, our academies, our mission?

I know that many of you are not in the mainline. You feel yourselves spared these dilemmas. You have no obligation to fight these battles. But analogous battles are being fought in all Christian ministries.

I have no interest here in boasting of the achievements of the mainline, particularly at this juncture of history, which so radically calls us all to repentance. I do not speak in a triumphalist tone in the presence of those of evangelical traditions who do not cotton to the mainline establishment or identify in any way with liberal church institutions. I only wish to communicate what a great work God the Spirit is doing among evangelicals within these churches, and hope it will hearten you wherever you serve.

4. Is the History of Exegesis Recoverable After a Century of Reductionist Historicism?

The Holy Spirit has a history. When this history is systematically forgotten, it is incumbent upon evangelical guardianship to recover it by new rigorous historical effort. This is why the apologetic task for biblical studies in our time must focus in a deliberate way upon the early history of exegesis. We have a right to learn from the reasonings and arguments that have sustained Christian textual interpretations and spiritual formation through many previous modernities, especially in their earliest prototypical forms. The canonical text has a history of interpretation which has been systematically ignored in the last century of historicist investigation.

Evangelical scholarship is already sorely tempted to become co-opted by reductionist nineteenth century historicist models of interpretation which approach the text by disavowing that it could be the revealed Word of God. To overcome this amnesia, evangelicals need to take the lead in biblical scholarship in recovering the history of exegesis.

This is why most of the rest of my life will be primarily devoted to editing a twenty-seven volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Its goals are: the renewal of Christian preaching based on classical Christian exegesis, the intensified study of scripture by lay persons who wish to think with the early church about the canonical text, and the stimulation of Christian historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral scholars toward further inquiry into the exegesis of the ancient Christian writers.

This verse by verse commentary will consist of carefully chosen selections in dynamic equivalent English translation from the ancient Christian writers of the first eight centuries. Texts are now being selected by an international team of experts out of the ancient Christian tradition from Clement of Rome to John of Damascus, ranging through the early centuries of Christian exegesis (100-750 A.D.). We are making accessible the most penetrating patristic passages on scripture, pericope by pericope. Our selections will feature both the varieties of classic Christian exegetical argumentation and their overarching cohesion grounded in ecumenical consensual exegetical reasoning. In this way Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox audiences will be served and renewed by this commentary.

This work stands in the early medieval catena tradition of patristic exegesis, and will benefit by utilizing and adapting that tradition in appropriate ways. This after-modern effort has antecedents in Eastern Orthodox and in seventeenth century Lutheran and Reformed heirs of the tradition of the glossa ordinaria. It will offer, for the first time in this century, the earliest Christian comments and reflections on all Old and New Testament texts to a modern pastoral and lay audience.

Translations will be made afresh where needed; insofar as current English translations are adequate, they will be used, and where adequate but archaic they will be dearchaized.

On each page the scripture text will be presented in the center surrounded by well-referenced direct quotations of comments of key consensual early Christian exegetes. The most succinct way to visualize this is to picture the printed text of the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic arguments and comments of the same period as the patristic writers, surrounding and explicating the texts of the sacred tradition.

Modern preaching has remained largely bereft of easily accessible patristic exegetical resources. This series will provide the pastor, lay reader, exegete, and student with convenient means to see what Athanasius or John Chrysostom or Leo the Great said about a particular text for preaching, for study, or for meditation.

How were these early exegetes viewed in the early evangelical revivalist tradition? The Fathers are "the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, and eminently endued with the Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. . . I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the Council of Nice. But who would not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them? with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Jerome, Austin [Augustine]; and above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus?" [5] The exegesis of the church fathers is especially helpful in "the explication of a doctrine that is not sufficiently explained, or for confirmation of a doctrine generally received." [6]

5. On Kicking the Post Out of Ultramodernity

This leads us to ask: When nostalgic ultramodernity poses as trendy postmodern, what apologetic responses are fitting for evangelicals? At what point will evangelicals learn to kick the post out of a fatigued ultramodernity camouflaging as postmodern?

The term postmodern is still being used by ultramoderns as if the assumptions of modernity were going to continue forever. Postmodernity in their sense only refers to an intensification of the despairing messianisms of modernity.

Modernity is the period, the ideology, and the malaise of the time from 1789 to 1989, from the Bastille to the Berlin Wall. The gawky, ungainly term post-modern points ironically to the course of actual hazardous history following the death of modernity. The period after modernity is a required course for evangelicals who attest the risen Lord amid a dying culture.

The evangelical take on post-modernity was well established long before 1980, well before anyone had heard of Derrida or Foucault. In 1979 the text of Agenda for Theology clearly documented an emergent, hopeful pre-eighties evangelical post-modern community of discourse. As early as the sixties some of us were trying to speak to the "new breed of spirit questers" in the post modern situation, amid "the maturing twentieth century." [7]

Already by the late seventies, before the postmodern fad of the eighties, I was attempting to differentiate sharply between modernity, later-stage modernity ("third quarter of the twentieth century"), and post-modernity, "preparing to enter the third millennium"), as I looked toward the emergence of a "postmodern orthodoxy, having been immersed in the deteriorations of later stage modernity, now reawakened to the power and beauty of classical Christianity, seeking to incorporate the achievements of modernity into an ethos and intellectus that transcends modernity under the guidance of ancient ecumenical Christianity." That was the "agenda for theology," as I saw it, in 1979, and remains so for many more today than in 1979. "This is what I mean by postmodern orthodoxy. Its spirit is embodied in the student who has been through the rigors of university education, often through the hazards of the drug scene, through the ups and downs of political engagement, through the head shrinks and group thinks of popular therapies, and through a dozen sexual messianisms, only to become weary of the pretentious motions of frenetic change. Finally they have come on Christ's living presence in the world in an actual community of Christians and now have set out to understand what has happened to them in the light of the classical texts of scripture and tradition." [8] "The agenda for theology in the last quarter of the twentieth century, following the steady deterioration of a hundred years and the disaster of the last two decades, is to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectfully following of the central tradition of classical Christianity." [9]

Then belatedly, after 1980 came Foucault, Derrida, and Rorty with a weaker, thinner, chic definition of postmodernity, which caught the imagination of ultramodern academics in literary and hermeneutic theory. It was only then that the popular press caught sight of the concept of post-modernity according to this later despairing ultramodern definition. Since the media elites have controlled this definition since the early 1980s, it has intruded itself belatedly upon theological dialogue as if normative. I appeal to you to return to the pre-eighties definition of postmodernity which is evangelically more hopeful, culturally more realistic, and providentially more circumspect.

When evangelicals today hear reckless talk of postmodernity by avant garde academics, there is no longer any reason to break out in a sweat. The cure is easy: Just quietly strike out the post and mentally insert ultra. That is what I call kicking the post out of ultramodernity.

Where postmodern has become a euphemism for ultramodern, paleo-Christians do not mind making a little jest over the difference. Where the value assumptions of modernity are nostalgically idealized, and where ancient wisdoms are compulsively disparaged, you have only a thinly veneered ultramodernity, even where it calls itself postmodernity. It is like a moth winging frantically and circling ever closer to the flame of instant fad death.

The ploy is to make modern value assumptions appear eternal by co-opting them in what is called postmodernity. This postmodern toupee may look fetching and neat but underneath there is sparse growth with no regenerativity. The decontructionist mask may look brave but it doesn't fit and the knees are quaking and there is a tick in the smile. The nameplate may say postmodern but the intellectus was patented in the Enlightenment. The subterfuge is based on the deceit of trying to make the key values of corrupted modernity appear permanent by endowing them with the fake label post-modern. It is a cover up that the liberal investigative journalists have not even begun to grasp, and are too intimidated to investigate.

6. Whither Postmodern Paleo-orthodoxy: Where is the Holy Spirit Leading Evangelical Apologetics?

Postmodernity in its paleo-orthodox definition is simply that period that follows the time span from 1789 to 1989 which characteristically embraced an enlightenment world view that cast an ideological spell over our times, now in grave moral spinout.

The spinout phase of late modernity is epitomized by the reductive naturalism of Freud which is no longer marketable as an effective therapy, the idealistic historical utopianism of Marx which is now internally collapsing from St. Petersburg to Havana, the narcissistic assertiveness of Nietzsche which is drastically cutting life expectancy on urban streets, and the modern chauvinism typified by Feuerbach, Dewey, and Bultmann that imagines the ethos of late modernity to be the unquestioned cultural norm that presumes to judge all premodern texts and ideas. Under the tutelage of these once brave modern ideologies so touted by the liberal media elites, sex has been reduced to orgasm, persons to bodies, psychology to stimuli, economics to planning mechanisms, and politics to machinery. These malfunctioning ideologies are today everywhere in crisis, even while still being fawned over by isolated church bureaucratic elitists.

These tired, fading modern illusions are woven together in a ideological temperament that still sentimentally shapes the oldline liberal Protestant ethos, especially its politicized bureaucracies and academies, who remain largely unprepared to grasp either their own vulnerability or their divine calling and possibility within this decisive historical opportunity.

The Marxist-Leninism of the Soviet era is now gone; the Freudian idealization of sexual liberation has found it easier to make babies than parent them morally; the children of the post-psychoanalytic culture are at peril; the truculence of Nietzschean nihilism has spread to the bloody banks of Bosnian and Cambodian and Rwandan and Ukrainian rivers with a trail of genocide along the way; the modern chauvinism of once-confident Bultmannians is now moribund since the modernity they expected never arrived.

These once-assured ideologies are now unmasked as having a dated vision of the human possibility; for none have succeeded in engendering a transmissible intergenerational culture. Since each of these ideological programs has colluded to support the other, they are now falling synchronously down like tottering dominoes: the command economies, the backfiring therapeutic experiments, the patient-abusing therapists, the mythic fantasies of demythology, the interpersonal fragments of drug experimentation, the exploding splinters of narcissism, and their wholly owned ecclesial subsidiaries, their theological hirelings and flunkies. If the Freudian project, the Bultmannian project, the Marxist project, and the Nietzschean project are all functionally morose, then later stage modernity is dead in any regenerative sense. That is what is meant by the phrase "terminal modernity." In a despairing search for a social utopia, we have blundered our way into the black hole of a social counter-utopia.

Renewing classic Christians are now being awakened and energized by this dawning realization: The Holy Spirit is determined to continue making alive the body of Christ. It is only on the falsely-hypothesized premise of the default of the Holy Spirit that the called-out people might seem at times to be coming to nothing. The demise of the church is the least likely premise in the Christian understanding of history.

Those who willingly enslave themselves to passing idolatries should not be surprised when their gods are found to have clay feet. When beloved modern systems die, the idolaters understandably grieve and feel angry and frustrated. Meanwhile the grace-enabled community can celebrate the passage through and beyond modernity, and celebrate the intricate providences of history in which each dying historical formation is giving birth to new forms and refreshing occasions for living responsively in relation to grace.

What is happening today is a profound rediscovery of the texts, apologetic methods, and pastoral wisdom of the long-neglected patristic exegetical tradition. For many evangelicals this means especially the eastern church fathers of the first five Christian centuries, which never suffered as deeply as did western medieval Catholicism from the distortions of speculative scholasticism.

What is happening amid this historical situation is a joyous return to the sacred texts of Christian scripture and the consensual exegetical guides of the formative period of scriptural interpretation. Postmodern paleo-orthodox disciples are those who, having entered in good faith into the disciplines of modernity, and having become disillusioned with the illusions of modernity, are again studying the word of God made known in history as attested by prophetic and apostolic witnesses whose testimonies have become perennial texts for this worldwide, multicultural, multigenerational remembering and celebrating and reconciling community of pardon.

7. Will the Church Endure? Reappraising the Question of Indefectibility

The decisive theological issue is the durability and indefectibility of the true church amid proximate temporary apostasy. This is the doctrinal issue that most deeply affects our moral courage and ability to relate to this cultural opportunity within what is sometimes mistaken to be a postChristian world: the indefectibility of the church that lives by the power of the Spirit. This is a theme well articulated by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, and Cranmer, and now is a fitting time for orthodox Christians to rediscover it. Classic Christian apologetics is once again being called to reclaim the apostolic teaching of the perpetuity, imperishability and indefectibility of the church. The one, holy, apostolic church the world over is promised imperishable continuance, even if particular associations and groupings of apostate Christian ministries may languish, falter, or atrophy.

Although the church in some dissolute times and places appears virtually extinct, becoming "so obscured and defaced that the Church seems almost quite razed out," "yet, in the meantime, the Lord has in this world, even in this darkness, his true worshippers." [10] The foundation is standing sure and the Lord knows who are his (2 Tim. 2:9). And there are seven thousand who have not bowed their knee to Baal. We are being offered a new opportunity to relearn of this remnant by observing the tenacious church in China following the Cultural Revolution and in the heroic church in Cuba amid the disintegration of Fidelismo, and the church in the former Soviet Union.

The church's future is finally left not to human willing or chance, but to the work of the Spirit and divine grace. Many branches of the seasonally changing vine may drop off in the varied storms and seasons of cultural histories. Once vital ideas and institutions may become dysfunctional and atrophy. But the church as body of Christ will be preserved till the end of time. It is a Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, Wesleyan and Baptist tenet that the destiny of the believing church is eternally secure. Faith remains the crucial condition of participating in this secure promise, but is not to be asserted so as to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to prevail over disbelief in God's own time.

Though individual believers may come to shipwreck, and even centuries of deteriorating traditions may lose their bearings during particular periods of confusion and crisis, the church as body of Christ is being guided by the Holy Spirit and sustained by grace until the end (John 16:6, 13). God will not be left without witnesses in the world (Acts 14:17). "One holy Christian church will be and remain forever." [11] According to my own church's traditional Order for Receiving Persons into the Church: "the Church is of God, and will be preserved to the end of time, for the promotion of his worship and the due administration of his Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline, the edification of believers, and the conversion of the world. All, of every age and station, stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies",a passage I learned by heart in the earliest days of my ministry.

Meanwhile the church that sails on the turbulent seas of history continues to be vulnerable to those hazards that accompany historical existence generally. The Holy Spirit does not abandon the ever-formative Christian tradition amid these earthly struggles. God supplies that grace of perseverance by which the church is enabled to remain Christ's living body even while being challenged by infirmities, forgetfulness, apostasy, persecution and schism. The believing community is being preserved to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). Against the church "the gates of hell shall not prevail", Jesus declared, according to Matthew's gospel (16:18, KJV; cf. Luke 1:33; 1 Tim. 3:15). This means that the church will never decline into total forgetfulness, since guided by the Spirit who promises always to accompany the faithful (John 14:16; Matt. 23:20), even when short-term ecclesial accountancy procedures do not add up, and management techniques show poor yields. The church insofar as guided by the Spirit does not ever fall entirely away from the fundamental truth of faith or into irretrievable error. She is preserved by grace, not by human craft or numbers or political skill (Matt. 7:25).

Despite temporary real and devastating apostasies, it is unthinkable that God would allow the church finally to become absolutely and continuously apostate or to lose all touch with the righteousness which Christ has once for all bestowed upon her. "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For `All men are like grass,," but "`the word of the Lord stands forever., And this is the word that was preached to you." [12] The promise of indefectibility is not toward a particular congregation or disciplinary approach or polity or denomination or generation or a passing period of history, but rather to the whole church to preserve her from fundamental error in the long course of history ,to the end. [13]

Insofar as the faithful are sustained by pure Word and Sacrament, adhering to the "faith once delivered," their eucharistic sacrifice, Christ's own self-giving to redeem sin, is received by God as faultless. [14] The Second Helvetic Confession saliently captured this affirmation for Reformed believers, that the church "does not err, so long as it relies upon the rock Christ, and upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles." Insofar as "she lets herself be taught by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God," Calvin argued that "the church cannot err in things necessary for salvation." [15] Though particular assemblies may lapse, relapse, or collapse, the elect people of God will not fall away from salvation, due to the Spirit's guidance.

All those called and elected will not be allowed to err at the same time. This is not a conclusion of an optimistic anthropology but a doctrine grounded in the work of the Spirit. While grace does not coerce belief, neither does it ever bat zero in any given ecclesial season. It is unthinkable that God would create the church at great cost, only to let it fall finally into permanent or irremediable error. Thus indefectibility is more a teaching of the power of the Holy Spirit than of the self-sufficiency of human imagination or of the strategic wisdom of the church as a sociological entity.

Jesus promised disciples of all times that the Holy Spirit will "teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26). Always some seed of faith remains buried in the ashes even of the most divided and corrupt ecclesial remnant. Sometimes such seeds may seem to survive marginally as endangered species, as scattered all too thinly throughout a particular weed-infested culture, as relics of former vitalities of previous covenant communities. Yet wherever Word and Sacrament are being faithfully transmitted and delivered, they are never without effect, for "my word" shall "not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire" (Is. 55:11), says the Lord.

Classical Protestantism affirms that "the church does not err" in the sense that the whole church does not at any given time err, and it does not err in the foundation, even if in temporary and non-essential ways it may. [16] Classic Protestants argue that the church is ultimately sure or certain or indefectible (asphales) insofar as it clings to the revealed word. Yet this does not diminish the recognition that still amid the history of sin the visible church is ever prone to forgetfulness and fallibility. Nonetheless, that community which is being called into being by the Holy Spirit will not be found falling irretrievably into apostasy, so as to make it impossible for all subsequent generations to hear the gospel. Yet this does not imply that the church is secure from making mistakes or errors of judgment. The relative fallibility of the church in time is itself a stable Protestant dogma.

Since fallible persons are the recipients of God's saving grace (for the healthy do not need a physician, Mark 2:17), as long as the church exists within the conditions of the history of sin, the church will be prone to being distorted and vulnerable to those who wish to use it for their own purposes. Until the consummation of salvation history when the incurably wicked will be cut off from the living vine, the community of called out people will be blemished and distorted.

To flee from the scene of human corruption would be to flee from the church's own arena of mission and servant ministry. But in so far as it is truly the body of Christ living in faith, hope, and love under the life-giving power of the Spirit, the church can never become absolutely or finally or fatally corrupted (Matt. 16:18).

Among diseases of the history of sin that continue to plague the church and resist its full growth are: the partisan spirit that would divide it, the heretical spirit that would lead it to distort or forget apostolic teaching, the antinomian spirit that turns Christian liberty into libertinism, the legalistic spirit that would turn grace into law, the naturalistic spirit that would treat grace as a determinant of nature. Despite these infirmities and challenges, which are permitted by a kind Providence to strengthen the church and enable it to grow stronger, the body lives on, the vine sends forth new shoots, the Spirit enlivens and heals, the Head continues to guide and order the whole organism (John 15:1-5; Col. 1:18).

The continuing renewal of ecclesial life never comes by avoiding sinners, for their redemption is the reason why the church exists. Clean-hands purists of all periods tend to flee the task of serving sinners, unlike Jesus who mixed with them, ate and drank with those most despicable and rejected, and profoundly identified with all sinners on the cross. The body of Christ continues to struggle against tendencies toward a Montanism that would exclude sinners based on their lack of Spirit, a Donatism which would exclude sinners based upon inauthentic ministry or regionalism, and a purist Novatian rigorism which would exclude sinners based upon their moral deficiencies.

The ecumenical councils and major consensual teachers attest ultimate indefectibility of the church as a gift of grace. [17] The patristic exegetes pointed to the councils as evidence of the assent of the whole church. It is this universal consent that is said to be reliable, and finally indefectible.

While the Holy Spirit is the actuating principle of this indefectibility, the consent of the general laity is given as an evidence of proximate unity and the central criterion of ecumenicity. The Holy Spirit does not introduce new or post-apostolic doctrine through the conciliar process, but rather acts to illuminate and guard from error the original apostolic witness. This occurs not as if mechanically actuated by the Spirit, but working in a normal human manner through debate, inquiry, parliamentary deliberation, voting, and the apparatus of policy formation.

The history of the church is not one of uninterrupted progress or ekstasis, without challenge or chastisement. Pascal in Pensées pictured Christianity as a thousand times having appeared to be "on the point of universal destruction, and every time that it has been in this condition, God has raised it up by some extraordinary stroke of his power." Each seeming defeat readies the community for a deeper level of understanding. Each apparent victory readies the community for a deeper level of conflict.

The residual vitality of the church, even in periods in which it seems to have been totally undone, is an amazing story recounted in actual human history, featuring startling recoveries after long periods of malaise and apparent death. The worst periods of martyrdom are characteristically accompanied by the profoundest movements of the witness of the Spirit. The deepest sloughs of demoralization and libertinism are followed repeatedly by such correctives as those of Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Luther, Calvin, Teresa of Avila, Edwards, Wesley, and Teresa of Lisieux. To know, the promise has held, even against great odds that the gates of hell have not prevailed against the ekklesia.


Footnotes

[1]. 1 Pet. 4:13-5:9; The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ante-Nicene Fathers, hereafter ANF, 1:37-44.

[2]. Phil. 3:10; Cyprian, On the Lapsed, ANF, V:437-47; Kierkegaard, Attack on `Christendom.,

[3]. Matt. 24:9; Irenaeus, Ag. Her. IV.33.9, ANF 1:508.

[4]. Luther, What Luther Says, III, pp. l 1358-60*; cf. preface to Wittenberg ed., Luther's Works 34, pp. 283-88.

[5]. John Wesley, Address to the Clergy, Works, i.2, X.484; cf. Journals of John Wesley, hereafter JJW, 3:390.

[6]. Wesley, A Roman Catechism, with a Reply, Preface, Works, X:87, italics added; cf. JJW 1:367.

[7]. Oden, Structure of Awareness, 1968, 15, 275.

[8]. Oden, Agenda for Theology, hereafter AFT, 1979, 5.

[9]. AFT:31.

[10]. Second Helvetic Confession; 1 Kings 19:18; Rev. 7:4, 9.

[11]. Augsburg Confession, Art. VII.

[12]. 1 Pet. 1:24,25; cf. Calvin, Commentaries, XXII:57-60.

[13]. Matt. 28:20; cf. Longer Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

[14]. Ambrose, Six Days of Creation, IV.2,7; John Chrysostom, On Eutropius; Confession of Dositheus, 10-12.

[15]. Inst., 4.8.13.

[16]. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

[17]. Council of Nicea, Basil, Letter 114; Gregory Nazianzen, On the Great Athanasius, Orat. XXI; Cyril, Letter 39.


Thomas C. Oden is Professor of Theology at Drew Divinity School and on the Board of Directors for the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church. This address was delivered to a plenary session of the Evangelical Theological Society in Philadelphia, 1996.


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