Progressive churches and the church of long ago

An important challenge for progressive churches is to maintain a strong and reliable connection with the one church that can be traced back to the apostolic era. Robert Jenson’s book Canon and Creed can help us in maintaining this connection. Although this is a theological book, the topic which Jenson discusses—the structure of the church’s continuity over time—comes from the social sciences. “Is the so-called church of today indeed the same community as the church of the apostles? Which is to say, as the church of Christ? (3).

There is, he proposes, “ecumenical agreement in a truly minimal proposition: the church is the community of a message, that the God of Israel has raised his servant Jesus from the dead.” Stated even more concisely: “Jesus is risen.” In order to flesh out this “message,” the church’s sacred scripture (canon) and its theological core (creed) have focused attention on three historically oriented themes: creation, the history of Israel, and the cluster of activities and meanings in which Jesus is the central figure.

The church also has developed a complex understanding of the divine. Through all of this process, there is one god at work, a god who comes to us in three guises, yet still is one. Striving for language to describe this complex idea, Jenson suggests that they are “three nodes in a network of relations.” The creed summarizes this complex theological idea and points people in the right direction, which is to affirm their own relationship to this one God who creates the world, redeems it through Jesus Christ, and empowers all things living through the Holy Spirit.

Although this function of creeds can be perceived in the classic statements enshrined in ancient liturgies, I see it more clearly in a recent composed affirmation of faith.

You, O God, are supreme and holy. You create our world and give us life. Your purpose overarches everything we do. You have always been with us. You are God.

 You, O God, are infinitely generous, good beyond all measure. You came to us before we came to you. You have revealed and proved your love for us in Jesus Christ, who lived and died and rose again. You are with us now. You are God.

You, O God, are Holy Spirit. You empower us to be your gospel in the world. You reconcile and heal; you overcome death.

 You are our God. We worship you.

With the central story line clearly in mind, it is possible to understand and affirm biblical texts that otherwise are difficult for progressive Christians to use. One of Jenson’s illustrations is his exposition of the annunciation as described in Luke 1:26-38. The gospels, Jenson notes, are the “part of the New Testament where creedal critique most needs to cut through historically constructed appearances. And in the Gospels few scenes pose exegetical possibilities so theologically heavy and are so in danger of being hidden under critics’ interesting but theologically irrelevant constructions, as does the annunciation” (99).

Jenson proposes that having to assign this story either to history or to legend is misleading. There is a third category within which the annunciation falls. “It is perhaps time for Judaism and the church to say out loud: the story told by modern cosmology and biology is an abstraction from the truly encompassing story of reality. It is an abstraction that is splendid and fascinating within its own scope, and is amazingly powerful for immediate practical purposes.”

There is, however, another dimension, which Jenson refers to as “the apocalyptic depth of reality,” and it has “connections and ordered sequences” that “determine results.” In this passage, the virginal conception of Jesus is this kind of story. It seems inescapable to me that the resurrection, which in Jenson’s system is even more important, also belongs to this third category.

Despite the fact that many who call themselves “progressive Christians” raise questions about the canon and bridle at the thought of creeds, Jenson’s concern for continuity with the church of all times and places is important. Even though I see things quite differently from others such as Paul, Augustine, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Alexander Campbell, I believe that we have all been part of the same church—the church that I want to bequeath to generations still to come.

This leads me to three conclusions for all of us who lead worship and preach in progressive churches: 1) This basic message can guide us in determining which portions of the Bible to use in worship and how we can best express our faith in hymns, prayers, and sacraments. 2) We can affirm the “encompassing story of reality” told by scientists and historians, and at the same time proclaim a faith that transcends all that we know about the history of time. 3) We can offer a way for people to accept the inevitabilities of life and death with a deep sense of peace, joy, and hope.

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One Response to Progressive churches and the church of long ago

  1. Hello Keith,

    It was good to bump into you at General Assembly in Nashville. I look back with great respect and thanks for the instruction I received from you and others at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, in the mid- to late-1990s.

    Currently, I am serving a Presbyterian Church as “Worship Consultant” for the summer. I am helping them to create and experience 5 worship services in different styles: Taize, Ancient-Spiritual Practices, Emergent, Evangelical, and Witness-Response.

    In planning the “Ancient-Spiritual Practices” service I will be drawing from what we know about the practices of worship in the New Testament and Early Church. Do you have any advice for me as I work with this congregation to develop this service? What do you think are the most important elements to include in a service with this intent?

    Peace to you in Christ,
    Michael Carlson

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