Learned Ignorance

by Peter J Leithart

On Wednesday evening, a capacity crowd assembled at the Calvary Chapel on the campus of Biola University for a roundtable discussion on the future of the Church. The event was co-sponsored by Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, First Things, and the Theopolis Institute.

The four speakers represented four Christian traditions: Simon Chan, Ernest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at of Trinity Theological College in Singapore, one of the world’s leading Pentecostal theologians; Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner; Fr. Tom Rausch, T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology at Loyola Marymount; and Fred Sanders, a self-described “low-church Evangelical” who teaches at Biola.

The globalization of the Church was a recurring theme. Rausch highlighted the historic shift from the northern to the southern hemisphere, while Chan’s “guarded optimism” about “global South” Christianity seemed to capture the consensus of the participants. Eschatology was another thread in the discussion, usually linked with the question of unity. In the opening paper, Chan emphasized that the ultimate future of the Church rests on Christ’s promise that the Church will be one. Though he choked on the word “ecumenical,” Sanders emphasized the inter-denominational character of Evangelicalism, which he portrayed as a gathering of those who still believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and who found themselves together on the curb after being expelled from liberal churches.

It was in the nexus of eschatology, unity, and Evangelicalism that the discussion most illuminated.

Radner began his paper by quoting 1 John 3:2: “We do not yet know what we will be. We know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is,” a text that applies to the Church as well as to individuals. The entities we now know as churches are not identical to the Church that will be when we become like Christ. Radner put the point strongly: The contingent historical formations of the Church—Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, whatever—do not have ontological standing; they are not the referent for what the New Testament calls “the Church.” The future Church, the Church founded on the divine word, is a single, unified body. The entire history of the churches is one of purification and purgation, as churches are transformed and ultimately subsumed into the one body that is the Bride of Christ.

This eschatological and ecclesial ontology has a practical implication. We are called to unity, but since we do not know what we will be, all our efforts to renew and reunite the Church must be infused by profound humility. We aim at a target we don’t yet see. We strive to be a Church of which we are ignorant.

We do not know what we shall be, but we do know all we need to know at the present time. Sanders brought this out with his moving distillation of Evangelicalism to the single question, “Do you know Jesus?” Evangelicals don’t want to know whether you are a church member, or whether you can recite catechism or creed, or whether you’ve received the sacraments. The question is: “Do you know Jesus?”
Sanders captured the genius of Evangelicalism and its enduring contribution to the whole Church. Evangelicalism is a relentless protest against every form of nominal, complacent, self-satisfied Christianity. It is a prophetic demand that Christian faith be more than lip service.

Permanent protest may seem a solvent of ecclesiology, and Sanders was nonplussed by the charge that Evangelicalism has no ecclesiology. Evangelicalism isn’t a church but a movement, so why does it need a doctrine of the church?

Evangelicalism’s prophetic stance need not undermine commitment to the Church. The question, “Do you know Jesus?” needs to be posed in terms the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus. Do you know the Jesus who is the new Adam, who gives himself for a Bride? Do you know the Jesus who gave his life to break down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, the Jesus who was killed for transgressing apparently eternal boundaries? Do you know the Jesus who said, “Do this,” and implied, “Do this together?” Do you know the Jesus who dwells by the Spirit in your brother, whatever church that brother might join? Do you know the Jesus who prayed that the disciples would be one as the Father and Son are one? During the panel discussion, Radner strikingly observed that unity is found wherever one believer gives himself for another believer, because there we see the imprint of the cross, where Jesus gave himself for his Bride. If we truly know Jesus, then we will be conformed to his self-giving, which is the source of the Church’s unity.

If we claim to know what we do not know, our programs for reunion become nothing more than a pious version of the hubris of Babel. If we do not know Jesus, then we have no hope for unity or for anything else. We seek the unity of the Church from a position of learned ignorance.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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