Sunday, 6 April 2008

Israel and the Divided Church

In 1998 Ephraim Radner published The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Eerdmans). I haven't read the book, but Bruce Marshall wrote a detailed review, which you can read here.

Radner's main thesis is provocative:

The divided church ... cannot disclose the gospel, but instead veils it—not only from the world, but above all from the church itself. As a community of those to whom the gospel is veiled (cf. II Cor.4:3), the divided church is ineluctably perishing, all the while ignorant of its fate. (378)
He grounds the church's division at the Reformation not in doctrinal differences but in a “contradiction of ecclesial love,” which led to the development of a “separative logic” amongst the divided church's theologians. The result of this negation of the gospel is the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit and thus inevitable death. In order to find guidance in this dire situation, he looks to the church's type, namely Israel, and what happened as it too was divided after the reign of Solomon.

For Scriptural Israel the cost of the chosen people's wilfully divided life is divine abandonment, exile and destruction for all. In this the faithful remnant share as much as the rest. God's purpose of election is not thereby void, but the form his electing love will eventually take is in invisible to those slated for death in Assyria and Babylon. Since the church's disunity makes sundered and exiled Israel contingently, but irrevocably, its type, our divided denominations must even now reckon with the Spirit's absence, and look forward to their coming death. (381, 2)
This is a brilliant and fascinating essay. There is much food for thought and I'm delighted to see typological interpretation being put to good use. However, there is one thing that bugs me: according to 1 Ki 11, 12, Israel's division is due to the direct intervention of God in response to the apostasy of the monarch and his people. Division is punishment for this sin and is part of a larger process of renewing this people to be faithful, rather than the sin itself which leads to exile and death. It would seem to me that the contemporary lesson this chapter in Israel's history teaches us is that unity is good, but unity without righteousness is meaningless, so that sometimes division and dissolution are necessary in order to bring about a renewal of the people of God. The Reformation was a necessary evil, even though it cannot remain the status quo.

Any thoughts?
NB: for a quote from the time of the undivided church, see here.


Anonymous said...

Radner's essay sounds fascinating, despite its potential shortcoming mentioned in your post. I would have to agree that the divided church truly does veil the gospel in its divisions, especially from itself. If theology truly is the grammar of ecclesiastical life, then such realities can only be properly understood in their embodiment. Thanks for the post! I'll have to look into reading Radner's book.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a historian... Irenaeus may have been speaking in the time of the "undivided church", but the Church has been divided from soon (historically speaking) after his time and ever since. Several of the Eastern Churches base their existence as distinct bodies back to the 4th and 5th Century controversies. Why pick on the Reformation specifically? Was the Great Schism of 1053 not a meaningful division in the Church? The events that precipitated it were certainly far from examples of Christian love and charity, and it has left a legacy of distrust and suspicion that continues to the present day.
To put it simply, Radner's thesis, as you have summarised it, would seem to imply that the Holy Spirit left the church at least a thousand years ago, if not 1500...
This seems to me demonstrably untrue, to display an extremely small view of God, and to require a very strange interpretation of Church History...

Phil Sumpter said...

Thanks Eric, I hope you enjoy the book. I'd love to read it too, one day ...


I'm no historian, so I appreciate your input. By "divided", Radner means "not in communion." Was that the case before 1053. As for that date, you are right, it is also an example of division. The sub-title of Radner's book, however, says "... in the West," so I'm guessing he just wanted to focus where is expertise is.

I don't think Radner thinks the Spirit has totally abandoned the church. I don't know the details how this works, but he does talk of light breaking through and God working with the situation as it is. Which would pose a large view of God, one able to work with brokeness, though only to a degree.

Was there a sharp downturn in the church's witness after 1053? I wonder how one would measure that.