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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, November 16, 2012

No Winners in this War

 This is an icon of St. Augustine. Benjamin Warfield, a Professor of Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary over 100 years ago, once quipped that the Reformation was a battle between Augustine's doctrine of the Church versus his doctrine of Grace. It is a perennial battle, I fear, and one that still rises up these days.

Notice the church building on Augustine's lap. He was a Bishop, world-renowned in his time for his preaching and his sagacity, especially concerning day-to-day ministry in his church and relating it to his world, and to God. A great scholar and teacher, he sat on his cathedra (the chair from which a Bishop preaches, hence, the name "cathedral" for a building which houses that chair), and left a deep mark on all of Christianity. To sum up way too simply (and you can see why I never got a degree in history), Augustine understood grace as God's energy to give freely to the world, through the redemptive activity of Jesus Christ, all the life it needs. This grace is the most powerful energy in the world, delivered to us through the activity of the Holy Spirit, so that all of creation can fulfill its destiny.

The Church, then, is God's chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit to deliver such goods. In the Reformation, then, and according to Warfield's insight, one side emphasized the authority of the Church to bring life to creation; the other side, emphasized the freedom of the energy to bring life, and the Church--although important--could never "box in" the energy (grace) of the Spirit. Just so you know...neither side won.

You see that battle blasting about us everywhere these days. The "Spiritual, but not Religious" people speak about the power of God's grace to be everywhere, to be free, and to be available, if we would just work hard at getting it. Congregations boom from pulpits that God has chosen the church for a reason, and it is sacrilegious to deny that power. Grace! Church! Church! Grace! The Reformation battles are hardly done.

Augustine was alive about 350 years after Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and resurrected, and his writings reflect the tenor of his times, as prescient as they are of ours. It is safe to assume, I believe, that this battle between Grace and the Church is built-in to the Christian tradition. To use a Biblical metaphor, even Peter had to find a way to live with Paul. That, of course, is my hope for all of us these days (and in this case, I include everyone, those who are not Christian, those who are, those who are marginalized within Christianity and society)--I hope we can learn to live together, in spite of our differences. It will be hard as those who have will probably have to share even more; and those who have little will probably have to set their sights more realistically. Those who shout "Church!" will learn to see that for some a boxed-in Grace is no grace at all; and conversely, those who shout "Grace!" will learn to see that for some a unrepentant Church carries no Grace either. We've made it this far together...the differences will always remain, but remember this--there was at least one person--besides Jesus--who thought both sides were true.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

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