Early in his book The Drama of Doctrine (pp. 3-4) theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer writes these two challenging chapters:
“Each new Christian generation must grapple with the question: What has the church to say and do that no other human institution can say and do? Nature and society alike abhor a vacuum, and there are many ideologies and agendas waiting to rush and fill the hearts and minds of the uncommitted. Bereft of sound doctrine, the church is blown about by cultural fads and intellectual trends. Indeed, this has largely been the story of the church, and of theology, in the modern world. There has been an atrophying of theological muscle as a result of too many correlations and accommodations to philosophical and cultural trends.
“What the church uniquely has to say and do cannot be reduced to philosophy or politics. The church’s unique responsibility is to proclaim and to practice the gospel, to witness in its speech and life to the reality of God’s presence and action in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The theologian’s unique responsibility is to ensure that the church’s speech and action correspond to the word of God, the norm of Christian faith and practice. A number of contemporary theologians are not sure, however, whether to invoke the notion of authority or, if they do, where to locate it: in the history of Jesus Christ, in the biblical text, or in the believing community.”
I am interested primarily in the opening sentences of both paragraphs. In these sentences we are asked, essentially, what makes the church the church and not something else. Then we are told the church has the unique responsibility of spreading and enacting the gospel.
Yet, as Vanhoozer notes, we are often not even sure of what that means or where our definition is to be found. We are not in agreement as to where to find an authoritative answer. I am wrestling with this even now.
What does it mean to stay faithful to God in Christ? What does it mean to be led by the Spirit? Where do we find these answers?
For a few years I have tried to dig behind dogma in order to find a more pure, more original Christianity. I was not successful. I am thankful for all those studying the historical Jesus and the historical Paul, but if we stop there it has become my conviction we will forget the active, living Spirit and the Scriptures and the unity of the faith. We cannot think that our nifty historical reconstructions are a sufficient foundation for living the gospel. We can’t do this without denying, in essence, that the Spirit has been active in the church for these last two millennia and we are not the first generation to “get it”.
This doesn’t mean the church finds shape in traditionalism, but maybe a little more tradition; we are not limited to Catholicism, but maybe catholicism. The church must find her grounding and wherever that grounding is to be found there must be the impetus for mission and gospel-centered living.
The church will never be more “intelligent” than the university; more gifted in music than the world; more creative than marketing companies; better at gaining crowds than professional sporting events, but we do have the gospel. That makes us different. Now I need to go think some more on this.