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Since we’re talking about “the church”

Time to bring in yet another serving of Will Campbell:

Hell, I don’t know what the church is. Jesus said something about the fact that He was going to build the church. He did say that nothing would prevail over it . . . even the gates of Hell, but He didn’t ask me to build it. And He certainly didn’t ask me to define it. I believe the church is at work in the world only because of my faith in this Jesus person. Trouble is, I don’t know what Jesus is up to or where His church is. That’s good because if I found the church then I’d give it a name and start running it.

Will Campbell, “Interview with The Wittenburg Door,” in Writings on Reconciliation and Resistance, 71-72.


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t think this flies as well as his other stuff you’ve posted. Being able to identify something doesn’t necessitate domination over it. Paul, Peter, et al had no trouble identifying churches. Yoder had no trouble identifying churches. Being able to identify where the church is does not necessitate dictating where it is not. And it’s hard for me to understand how the Body of Christ isn’t integrally involved in building…itself. I think, taken by itself as you’ve quoted it, this is an overstatement.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well, remember it is an interview. But I do think there’s something important in saying that in some sense we don’t fully know what the church is. Only that it is a reality that exists because of Jesus that we are still figuring out and discovering amid failure and repentance.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  3. d stephen long wrote:

    I think I’m with Brad here. How is this not akin to Luther’s invisible church, which as many have demonstrated — depoliticized and privatized the church? Given your concern to avoid ideology, I would think you would be concerned that this unidentifiable church makes its political character disappear and thus strengthens the modern nation state as the only temporal, political reality. Moreover, does your everyday practice not demonstrate that you do not really accept this? Are you ever confused where you should go when you gather with the ‘church of the servant king?’ I also wonder if this apocalyptic desire to not be able to identify the church is symptomatic of the ‘gnostic return’ Cyril O’Regan traces in his work, and thinks some of us Protestants are tempted toward. I think you are right to say that “in some sense we don’t fully know what the church is.” We do after all confess our ‘faith’ in it: “we believe in the one, holy catholic, apostolic church,” which I certainly cannot see clearly and sometimes wonder if it even exists at all. But what concerns me about your tendency to ‘apocalyptic’ (sometimes mightily close to gnostic) is that you lose the need for a faithful, earthly presentation of the church altogether — for the ‘project’ of ‘ecclesia.’ Mind you I’m tempted as well. It would be easier if I didn’t have to identify a one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. But I think it is necessary to do so — that it is part of Christian practice. But sometimes I’d like to be convinced I’m wrong so I could abandon this ‘project’ altogether. I’d have less restlessness.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 5:04 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’m completely with you on your statement, but your statement is a far cry from Campbell’s. Even those with an “ecclesial fetish” – perhaps especially those – recognize that much of the church is a mystery, including its parameters. I don’t really know what Campbell adds here.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Steve, I’m more or less with you here. Maybe I’m just applying a different hermeneutic to Campbell. Not unlike how some people can receive Stanley’s statement “If you need a theory to understand God then worship your fucking theory!” quite differently and find it either utterly stupid or somewhat jovially revealing.

    All I’m taking away from this quote is that the church is something given to us only in and through our connection with Jesus and what he is doing in the world. It exceeds our attempts at definition (which is not to say we cannot describe it — perhaps Campbell’s remarks tend in that direction).

    For me the importance of apocalyptic is actually quite the opposite of what you mention towards the end of your paragraph. I find that it introduces a restlessness that I desperately need in the context of a deeply rooted and settled ecclesial community. Indeed, it is precisely the reality of Christ’s singular action that impels me towards and gives me hope in pursuing “the ecclesia project.” For whatever that’s worth.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  6. Tyler wrote:

    We probably can’t exhaustively define the church, I’m ok with that. But Campbell’s quote (taken on its own), in seeking to not define the church, merely defines it with an elusive notion of ‘absence’ under the guise of agnosticism.

    I think our confession Dr. Long referred to, “one holy, catholic, apostolic church” can sometimes confuse us towards this thinking. The church is not always one, nor always holy, and in this respect, it’s apostolic (Acts 15:36-40; 1 Cor 11; Gal 3).

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  7. adhunt wrote:

    “Hell, I don’t know what Christ’s Body is. Jesus said something about the fact that He was the Christ. He did say that he would send his Comforter, but He didn’t ask me to get it. And He certainly didn’t ask me to define him. I believe the Christ is at work in the world only because of my faith in this Jesus person. Trouble is, I don’t know what Christ’s Body is up to or where His body is. That’s good because if I found the Christ’s Body then I’d give it a name and start dogmatizing it.”

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  8. adhunt wrote:

    That was merely an exercise in “making the Word strange” if you will afford me the indulgence. When you begin to say that “the church” eludes your grasp I wonder not a little if such wondering is at all connected to the a) historical Protestant, not least Reformed, tendency to almost completely neglect the Spirit in dogmatics b) loose attachment and generally unreflective position to the Sacraments.

    It becomes problematic to say that we can recognize Christ at all when Christ is so severed from his Church by deeply transcendentalizing him. Would it not be better to say we can indeed locate the Church? It is those who by faith have been baptized into it? That is not to close off Christ’s work outside of the Church but it makes Christ locatable, and therefore political, and therefore able to discipline and transform.

    For the life of me I keep looking for ways that the Apocalyptic Word without a body finds people to erupt upon?

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    So you’re saying you’re wondering if I’m almost completely neglecting the Spirit and have a loose attachment to and unreflective position on the Sacraments? Ok. I don’t really think either of those things are true or that you would have any way of knowing.

    Now, I’m not sure what to make of the rest of your comment. Apparently you think that the only way Christ is political or able to discipline and transform is due to the church. That Christ sounds like nothing more than a cipher that the church gets to project into itself.

    Also, the Word always has a body. Jesus walked around in it, ate food, drank wine with it. He ascended in it to the right hand of the Father and will always be so embodied. The whole “without the church Christ is disembodied” line seems to me to deny the incarnation of Christ in his particular Jewish flesh.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink
  10. adhunt wrote:

    I was speaking far more generally about Reformed dogmatics, I wasn’t directing them at you. Remember the quote was from someone else. I was more going off of Dr. Long’s comments but whatever.

    But for God’s sake I don’t think that it is for no reason that there was only a tiny bit about the Spirit (however good it is) in the whole of Barth’s Dogmatics! Neither do I think it inconsequential that the theologian to most develop a Pneumatology in some, centuries, was an Orthodox theologian who talked a hell of a lot about the Church.

    Why is it, not having many things visibly present to the theologian that some are comfortable talking about a hell of a lot speculatively besides the Church when it is the Church who finds its boundaries in deeply physical acts like Water and Laying on of Hands?

    But fine, just get defensive.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Well, when you said “When you begin to say that “the church” eludes your grasp…” I assumed that I was the “you” there because, you know, that was what I was saying in the comments above. In other words, your sentence clearly links what I was saying to these alleged negative trends in Protestant theology. I don’t know how I was supposed to get that that wasn’t directed at me.

    I’ll leave it to the Princetonians to come to Barth’s defense on this one, but I will note that there is a hell of a lot about the Holy Spirit all throughout the CD. The only reason I can think of that someone would claim that there is only “a tiny bit about the Spirit” in the CD is simply being misinformed.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  12. adhunt wrote:

    I should have said “one” instead of “yours.”

    All I know is that I’ve read some of the Dogmatics and I’ve read several essays at least that mention the Dogmatics offhand as being particularly lacking in sustained reflection on the Spirit in the same way that Barth reflects on Christ and the Word.

    On of those essays off the top of my head was Rowan Williams’ – On Christian Theology – “Barth’s doctrine of the Spirit is, notoriously, one of the least developed areas of his system.” 107 In the notes he points to a couple sections to check out.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Tyler wrote:

    Whether the Rowan Williams statement is accurate, I’m with Halden – waiting for the “Barthians” to weigh in….but also keep in mind that CD V (doctrine of redemption) was never written.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  14. Nancy Nolan wrote:

    Just happened to be reading Barth’s, “The Humanity of God,” this evening–hope this is relevant to your discussion. I find his insights (selections from the last few pages of his essay) quite moving:

    “What is the existence of this particular people but the reflection of the humanity of God, although it is admittedly everywhere blurred and darkened and in its continuity all too often interrupted? We should be ashamed of Jesus Christ Himself, were we willing to be ashamed of the Church. He is Lord of this community…King of this people…Head of this body and of all its members. He is all these with and in this inconspicuous, painfully divided, and otherwise very questionable Christendom. He is all these with, among, and in the Christians whom one can admire or even love only in the face of many serious difficulties. The Church is not too mean a thing for Him but, for better or for worse, sufficiently precious and worthy in His eyes to be entrusted with His witnessing and thus His affairs in the world–yes, even Himself.”

    Sorry for the length but wanted to include:

    “Theology cannot be carried on in the private lighthouses of some sort of merely personal discoveries and opinions. It can be carried on only in the Church–it can be put to work in all its elements only in the context of the questioning and answering of the Christian community and in the rigorous service of its commission to all men.”

    I think it’s significant that Barth wrote these things in light of what he witnessed (and confronted) when the Protestant church in Germany aligned itself with Wilhelm II and later the Third Reich.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  15. Nancy Nolan wrote:

    I hope it’s not inappropriate to share from personal experience. I’m in a church community that meets in a local Rec. Center. There are about 40 of us–some are Reformed/Calvinists (four and five point), some are Pentecostal/Arminians, some don’t know and don’t care–they just love Jesus. As far as eschatology, we have a few Preterists, quite a few Dispensationalists, a few Amillennialists and again some who only know that Jesus is coming back one day (except, of course for our Preterists who believe He already returned in 70 AD). Our number include egalitarians and complementarians, working class and white collar, retired and just starting out in life, single parents, a former lesbian, someone whose blindness is the result of a botched abortion 45 years ago and a former marine who is just now to come to terms with the atrocities he witnessed (and perpetrated) in the Vietnam War. Lots of health issues–two of our members died this year. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on political issues–uncomfortably so. But, there is One Person who unites us in love for one another and for our community. Each Sunday we gather together to worship the God we love. I think that is the church.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 10:04 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for sharing that.

    Friday, January 29, 2010 at 10:07 pm | Permalink
  17. mike d wrote:

    There was this one Reformed guy, Calvin I think, and he wrote about the Holy Spirit a bit

    Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 4:00 am | Permalink

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