Thursday, December 11, 2008

T.F. Torrance: The Locus of Church Unity

Churches talk a lot about unity. Christians clamour for it as they design their worship services and church programs, as they fish about for a target demographic and cater to the felt-needs of the perceived majority. They will lament the lack of visible unity (in doctrine, mission, fellowship, or reputation) between denominations and ecclesial traditions, and they will lament the lack of fellowship at times within their local churches as well. One of the ways churches respond to this is by the all-too successful strategy of conflict avoidance. We prefer sometimes the false peace of seeming unity to the communion of people speaking the truth in love (as enabled by faith in Christ).

Christians aren't the only ones addicted to the requirement of visible and tangible unity. Often those who have rejected or become disillusioned with the church have done so in part because they think if God were really in the church it would be one big happy unified worldwide church. The existence of denominations alone is taken as proof against God. Sometimes they have actually left because they were "hurt by the church". On these occasions the underlying implication was that it was no longer worth it to seek reconciliation. It is not only accepted but encouraged that we leave a church to its own "unity" and shop around for somewhere else to fit in, hassle free.

Point is, we frequently have churches building their unity around music style, platform persona, vision statements, conflict avoidance, demographic narrowing, building location, pastoral charisma, friendly foyer faces, and so on. And we have church rejected sometimes on the grounds of a lack of any one of these things, or because of a lack of hassle-free unity.

And all this leads one to ask: Where is Christian unity to be found? One thing that I find very compelling is the following perspective offered by T.F. Torrance (as told by Alister McGrath).

"One of the most important issues raised by Torrance [during the ecumenical dialogues of the mid 1950s] was the need to recover the eschatological orientation of the doctrine of the church." As he put it:

"'Broadly speaking . . . while Lutheran eschatology was mainly an eschatology of judgment . . . with their emphasis on the decay and collapse of the world, Reformed eschatology was mainly an eschatology of resurrection . . . with their emphasis upon the renewal of the world through the incarnation of Christ. . . .

'This means, however, that the whole life of faith and union with Christ is exercised in eschatological tension (suspensio) between the prius manifested in the calling of God [predestination], and the posterius of final revelation and redemption [eschatology], and in a wondrous anticipation or foretaste of the glorious consummation.' . . . Torrance believed that this eschatological element of the Reformation doctrine of the church required to be injected into contemporary ecumenical discussions. . . .

For Torrance, the unity of the church was to be understood as 'an eschatological reality that both interpenetrates history and transcends it, as a given unity even in the midst of disorder and as a promised unity beyond it.' . . .

'If the given unity of the church is essentially eschatological, then the vitality of all that she does is conditioned by the Parousia and cannot be made to repose upon any primitive structure of unity already complete in the naturally historical realm.' . . .

The church will be unable to carry out this divine mission and function in the world unless she recovers more and more the eschatological character of her true being. The great shame and disorder of the church is that she has collaborated with the disorder of the world" (Alister McGrath, TF Torrance, 97-99).

I think this is very helpful, and true. At the same time I'd hate to see us cop out from the effort for fellowship in the here and now because we leave it to the future for God to sort out. I don't think that is Torrance's suggestion. Rather, I think that he would say that placing the locus of our unity in the promise and plan and provision of God allows us not to base it on temporal strategies out of a lack of faith. With this kind of faith, we can then actually have a present unity that is found in an authentic and vital dynamic of persistent reconciliation and discussion.

We are centered around some essential creeds and values, to be sure, but our unity is as often in the dialogue as it is in the polished statements of faith or agreed upon worship practices. The locus of our unity is in Christ, and not in ourselves. It is mystical enough to be solid in dark times, and it is solid enough to be a goal worth striving toward.

I don't know if it helps you, but this perspective has really helped me to stick with my local churches through some sometimes disillusioning and disappointing times.

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