A Missional Ecclesiology that marginalizes the Reformed, orthodox and Evangelical in the PCUSA
A Review of Paul Hooker's “What is Missional Ecclesiology?
By Viola Larson
As a new Christian, fifty three years ago, I loved the old hymns of the Church. One favorite was a bit sentimental but true for those who have encountered Jesus Christ. The song, “I Love to Tell the Story
,” has lines I consider missional. One verse explains:
I love to tell the story, tis pleasant to repeat what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet. I love to tell the story, for some have never heard the message of salvation from God's own Holy Word.
But of one must tell that story in a language and a way that leads to understanding for those in each generation and every nation, who either have never heard or fail to hear the true meaning. And one must keep telling the story, because as another line of the song declares, “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.” Missional surely includes all of the Church as well as her outreach.
Yet there is understandably a debate about the word missional and the meaning of a missional church. The debate about the meaning of a missional church has entered one of the papers offered by the Form of Government Task Force (FOG).
Fog has now released new drafts of their work including Foundations of Presbyterian Polity
and Proposed Form of Government
. One of the documents made available by the task force is What is Missional Ecclesiology?
. This document is recommended reading for both individuals and groups preparing to study the new drafts. In other words the FOG Task Force wants members of the PCUSA to shape their thinking around the theological concepts in Reverend Paul Hooker's paper “What is Missional Ecclesiology?”
There are some helpful thoughts in the paper such as “It is not the Church who sends; it is God who sends the Church.” Or “Mission does not happen at the initiative of the Church; mission happens at the initiative of God.” But, in the paper, the theology concerned with both Church and mission is terribly flawed.
Hooker attempts, in the midst of the missional debate, to not only define missional but also to redefine a multitude of words which have always held important meaning for the Church. First he redefines the core message of the Church, and this shapes his whole paper. Next Hooker looks at the first part of the Nicene Creed and redefines the words catholic and apostolic.
Beyond his redefinition of those two words, in order to ascribe holiness to the Church, Hooker takes sin, and like many Christian Panentheists, places it in the being of God as a redemptive action. Then he turns to the Reformation and its core teaching about the true church and redefines the proclamation of the word, the giving of the sacraments and discipline.
I will look at each problem in turn.
The core message of the Church
In his attempt to define missional, Hooker writes, “the foundation for all mission-all `sending'-is the act of the Triune God to enter the world in Christ, to suffer and die and be raised again.”(Italics author) But in another part of his paper, under his third truth about mission, Hooker destroys the foundation he has just laid. His third truth is, “The calling of the church is to be a community of witness to the future God is creating.” (Italics author)
After giving several biblical word pictures to explain the future including the phrase kingdom of God, Hooker redefines the Church's core message as he writes:
But running through all this language is the common theme of anticipation of the future God is creating in the world. The character of that future [is?] visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the Church is not a memorial community called simply to remember and relive the past. The calling of the Church is to be a community of witness to and participation in God's future. It draws its strength from its hope for what God will yet do, more even than from its memory of what God has already done.
No! The good news, the witness of the Church, what God has already done, is what Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross and in his resurrection. It is perhaps Hooker's use of Jürgen Moltmann's theology that allows him to place eschatology, the future, above the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, thus changing the mission and witness of the Church. As John W. Cooper, Professor of philosophical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary puts it, “Moltmann argues that the unity of God is eschatological. God is completely One only in the fulfillment of the kingdom.1
But the Reformed and biblical view holds to the completeness and freedom of God and places the mission of the Church absolutely in the telling of the story of Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection. The first sermon, preached in Jerusalem to Jewish people from all over the known world, is still the witness of the Church today. Peter speaking of the resurrection of Jesus proclaims, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Peter goes on to urge his audience, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” (Acts 2:36, 38-39)
Because Jesus Christ is alive and the head of his Church, to constantly proclaim his death and resurrection does not make the Church a “memorial community” but a living community nourished by the life of Christ and sent with a life giving message for the world.
Redefining the Nicene Creed
Catholic: Hooker writes about the Nicene Creed, “The Church is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.” (Italics authors) First he attempts to show how the Church in her life has not lived up to the Creed. She is not holy. She is not catholic. Hooker defines catholic as, “inclusive,” using the Greek definition of “kath-olos, giving the meaning `pertaining to the whole.”
But the whole of the Church does not necessarily mean inclusive if those included under the term inclusive are not those who have turned in repentance to Jesus Christ. The catholic or universal Church does not include those who reject Jesus Christ or his Lordship. Still, shaking his verbal finger, Hooker writes, “we have routinely squelched and silenced people on the basis of culture, language, or lifestyle.”
Apostolicity: Hooker writes that “The apostolicity of the Church has become the ground of our calling to be one, holy, and catholic.” However, he defines apostolic as being sent because “God the Father sends God the Son to live in, die for, and be raised from the world through the power of the Spirit.” While that sounds good it is not the traditional meaning the Church has given to apostolic. It is not the meaning the authors of the Nicene Creed intended.
The word apostle in the Greek of course is about being sent, but apostolic instead refers to the teaching of the Church. Luke, in the book of Acts, states that the new believers “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)
Calvin contrasts this verse with the Catholic understanding of apostolic succession. He writes,
Do we seek the true Church of Christ? The picture of it is here painted to the life. He[Luke] begins with doctrine, which is the soul of the Church. He does not name doctrine of any kind but that of the apostles which the Son of God had delivered by their hands. Therefore, wherever the pure voice of the Gospel sounds forth, where men continue in the profession thereof, where they apply themselves to the regular hearing of it that they may profit thereby, there beyond all doubt is the Church.”2
The Church is only true to her calling and mission when she adheres to the teaching of the Apostles as found in the Holy Scriptures. God's sending is never outside of his word.
Oneness: Hooker rightly equates the Church's unity, holiness and universality with God's oneness, holiness and outreach to the whole of life. But as he works the process out, and he does see it as a process, he changes the biblical teaching about God and the Church.
Hooker insists that the Church's oneness is being completed “in the new reality God is creating.” Here it is not Hooker's idea that the Church is growing into a unity that is the problem, rather the idea that God himself is still creating some new thing to bring about that unity. The new thing has already occurred with Christ. It is complete. Now, as Paul explains, God has given gifts to the Church that she might “attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
Holiness: Hooker also insists that the holiness of the Church happens as a result of Christ's death on the cross which for him means that “all that is unholy” is being “claimed and redeemed-including the sinfulness and failure of the Church.” Hooker is correct to state that the Church is holy because of the death of Christ on the cross and the redemption he gives his people. Our righteousness is after all the righteousness of Christ. But Jesus Christ does not claim sin in order to redeem it. It is not sin that is redeemed, rather it is humanity that is redeemed from sin.
A larger understanding of what Hooker is implying here can be seen by his statement about the universality or catholic nature of the Church. He writes:
In the death of Jesus, the separation of Father and Son at the moment of the cross is so great that it creates a space within which all the sin, brokenness, and fractionalization of the world can be included and brought into the being of God by the power of the Spirit. Therefore, no human condition or reality lies outside the power of God to heal and redeem.3
This thought, once again, is couched in Christian panentheism. It is Christian because it includes the Incarnation and the Trinity. It is panentheism because it places evil in the being of God in order to redeem it. It in fact necessitates evil in the being of God since the new reality is a movement forward toward something God has not yet created. It is not necessary to see redemption this way and it changes the way the believer understands God, the Church, and mission. It invites, in a very practical manner, an inclusiveness that excuses sin rather than repentance and transformation.
Redefining the Reformation marks of the true Church
Hooker turns to the Reformer's insistence that the true Church is known by its proclamation of the word, the giving of the sacraments and discipline. Hooker suggests that others have dismissed these marks of the true Church as being too `internal', too `in house' to allow for a missional ecclesiology. While Hooker disagrees, he reinterprets the marks “in light of the self-sending of God into the world.”
Proclamation of the Word: Hooker's reworking of the proclamation of the word uses his understanding of God's new reality. He writes:
It [the proclamation] articulates in word and work the new reality God is creating for people, and it invites people into that new reality. Missional proclamation invites people not merely to `hear the old, old story' but to understand their own personal narratives as part of that larger and ongoing story of God's engagement with the world.
This places each personal story on pare with the holy act of God in Jesus Christ. This way of framing proclamation not only allows mission to begin with human experience it makes human experience the gospel, the good news. But the good news begins with Jesus Christ's life, death and resurrection, and it ends with believers united to the resurrected Lord. This is the only story; the true new reality which is the old, old story.
The Sacraments: Once again Missional Ecclesiology uses his concept of God's new reality to reinterpret the Sacraments. He writes, “the sacraments-understood missionally-become a nexus between our reality and the new reality of God.” Using this understanding he goes beyond the true understanding of baptism. Hooker writes:
In Baptism, we do more than initiate a new life into the fellowship of the congregation. We also publicly affirm our solidarity with those outside the congregation, because we understand that it is by the grace of God and not by our deserving that we are brought to the font.
The paper seems to interpret the Lord's Supper in much the same way as it does Baptism, but it use of LK 13:29 makes its intent unclear.
The sacraments are a sign and seal of what God is doing in an individuals life. The Church does not affirm her solidarity with those outside the congregation through the sacraments. There simply is no connection between the two actions. Beyond that the congregation must constantly affirm her solidarity with the universal catholic Church, but not with the world. Instead she proclaims the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to the world.
Discipline: It is important that Hooker has addressed discipline in the Church and I believe that he is right that it is “much more than judicial process. He also adds that “the proper use of the Rules of Discipline to reconcile and restore is an important part. I agree. Hooker also insists that such discipline must be part of a community which practices “mutual accountability.” He sees the community engaged in prayer, worship and Bible study. This is good.
But later in his paper, under Missional Ecclesiology and Missional Polity, Hooker enlarges on his concept of accountability and discipline, and he does this under several sub-titles. Under a missional polity which defines the work of the councils of the Church, he once again insists that the Church's mission must reflect the new reality that God is creating.
Hooker writes of essential tasks not essentials of the faith. He also writes of unity in the connectional work of the Church councils. But all of this is grounded not in the good news of what Jesus Christ has already done but in the new reality of what God is creating. This means that the essential tasks of the Church can become work that is outside of the biblical mandate and instead pertains to the new thing. The new reality can itself shape an improper use of discipline.
Under the missional polity which shapes mission and makes it flexible, Hooker writes:
A missional polity must identify the essential functions and define the standards of the Church, but it must also provide maximum flexibility to fulfill those functions within the limits imposed by the standards. So, for instance, a missional polity might define the basic educational, behavioral, and competence standards for those seeking ordination to the ministry of the teaching elder, but permit presbyteries to devise their own process for determining whether those standards have been satisfactorily met by a given candidate. (Emphasis mine)
This paper rather than helping those who are studying the other FOG drafts will confuse, shape erroneous views about God and his Church, or simply cause more division in the body of Christ.
The paper replaces Reformed biblical theology with an unacceptable theology which pushes the progressive understanding that God is doing something new in our generation. It thereby marginalizes all orthodox, Reformed and Evangelical Presbyterians pushing their theological views out of sight as the Church begins her deliberations on the acceptability of the new Form of Government.
1 John W. Cooper, Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers: From Plato to the Present, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2006), 249, Cooper is citing , Jürgen Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom, 149.
2John Calvin, Calvin New Testament Commentaries, The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1, translators John W. Fraser & W.J.G. McDonald, Editors, David w. Torrance & Thomas F. Torrance, reprint, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1977), 85.
3 Hooker attempts to connect this thought to Karl Barth by foot noting a quote from Rowan Williams, “Barth on the Triune God,” in Karl Barth: Studies of His Theological Method. Ed. Stephen Sykes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, p. 177. The quote is, “Our distance from God is itself taken from God, finds place n God….In the Incarnation, God distances himself from himself….And the separation between Father and Son is bridged by the Spirit.”