Dr. Frankenstein Ecclesiology

I remember in Bible college, seeing or reading about attempts to use the texts of the Old Testament (especially the latter half of Exodus) to reconstruct (on scale) the tabernacle, altars, sacred furniture and vestments of God’s people. Of course, as is inevitable when using texts in ways they were not intended to be used, there were details about the fabrication of these things that the text did not and could not answer, and in which the phrase “artist’s rendering” became pregnant with meaning.

My own Restoration Movement past, as well as other restorationist or primitivist groups, rather regrettably suffered from this mindset when it came to “restoring” the New Testament Church. Of course the question was begged that the New Testament Church needed restoring. A whole host of apologetical frameworks were devised so as to avoid denying Jesus’ promise of the Church’s perseverence: the “trail of blood” history of the Church, redefining restoration as reformation, as well as others–all more or less problematic in that the solution created further problems: those “trail of blood” “marytrs” were all heretics, and how could a Church that is called by St. Paul the “pillar and groundwork of the truth” ever need reforming. But such restoration projects almost always devised a strategy of “just using the New Testament” to figure out what the New Testament Church was all about.

The problem with this is that it is dealing with a dynamic historic entity and not some facts in a book, and thus is limiting the evidence to only one selection of writings and ignoring the plenitude of other historical writings that shed light on the first–which hermeneutic will inevitably skew and distort one’s view of this “New Testament Church.”

But more to the point, the Church is a living organism, not a set of theories, ideals, doctrines or practices. A set of theories, ideals, doctrines and practices is just that: a collection of data. It is not a living being. Humans are not granted the authority nor the ability to create life from nothingness. That is the the sole prerogative of God. We can no more assemble the parts of the Church (even assuming we could discover and/or know what all those parts were and are simply from reading the New Testament) and jolt them with electricity or infuse them with some goo and create a living organism. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is, thank God, fiction.

So, too, is the notion that the Church can be created or recreated from the spare parts of various interpretive ideologies used in reading the New Testament.

God has created only one living organism called the Church. We do not honor him by attempting to created a hybrid monster. Rather, we honor him by learning who and where that Church is, becoming one with that life he gives it, and loving and serving him in that living gift.

18 thoughts on “Dr. Frankenstein Ecclesiology

  1. I’d be curious to read a history of this Ecclesiology. I know it’s a developmental process… to paraphrase your line, the living Church undergoes “constant reformation” to keep it inline with the Spirit.

    But I’m hard pressed to read the Fathers and find this view (without reading our modern point of view back into them). But I could just be reading the wrong fathers.

    This view of the Church, for example, is not present in the Didache – where we pray the Church to be gathered eventually into the Kingdom. and the parallel in the text indicates that as the grain wasn’t one but scattered and then became one loaf so the church should (in the final days) become one as well. But isn’t yet.

    So… we evolved from there to the position you describe.


  2. Huw:

    Forgive me, but I think my shortened night last night is affecting my ability to get your point.

    Could you clarify a bit more what you’re getting at? I seem to read you as critical of the living organism view which I am presenting. But as I said, perhaps I’m unclear.

  3. Maybe my time-traveling is affecting my ability to speak! My North Carolina body clock woke me up at 4AM in San Francisco.

    Forgive me, and let me try again.

    Yes, the “living organism” idea… the idea that the Church is (now, here) one… and by extension the idea that the Church is (now, here) the Kingdom.

    Many Protestants seem to read church history as if that never happened, nor was ever intended, or – at worst – was lost. I don’t share that view.

    There seems to be a way to read the church’s history where all of those ideas are present from the get-go. This is a way of reading I do not have. But I do find it confusing because one can see those ideas developing over time. (And, by faith, we say that is the Spirit’s leading.)

    I’d be curious to read a history of the Church’s view of herself.

  4. Huw:

    I don’t think the “living organism” idea of the Church–with allowance for modern/present day versions of it–is somehow an imposition on the Church of a narrative of her own history. We see this teaching of living organism in the New Testament itself.

    More to your point, however, I do not think a “living organism” view of the Church necessarily requires a fully realized eschatology. It can, and I think does, allow for a partially realized eschatology. The millennial kingdom is now–but it is not fully real now. Or the, to borrow a phrase, “now and not yet” realized eschatology.

    I hope, however, that I’m still not missing your point. Please correct me if I am.

  5. I don’t think you’re missing my point… textually, I don’t think we see the Church as much more than an association in Acts: “members of the way” they are called. She develops her ideas about herself. It would be interesting to trace that line.

    Now and not yet… yes, that’s the way it was phrase even at St Gregory Nyssa Church when we used and discussed the Didache Liturgy. But that phrase and that eschatology has some very distinct implications, among them the idea of Unity. I think the “now and not yet” idea is in marked tension with the “living Organism, always the same” idea.

  6. “We see this teaching of living organism in the New Testament itself.”

    Clifton and Huw:

    Forgive me for butting in, but Clifton, are you referring here to St. Paul’s language of the Church as the body of Christ? This may or may not contain the idea of “the same Church in all places and times,” just as the NT does not have a highly developed view of apostolic succession.

    I would argue that the “living organism” view of the Church and apostolic succession are first most apparent in St. Irenaeus’ writings, even if they are not explicitly stated in the New Testament.

    And the Church as “living organism, always the same” is indeed in tension with the already/not yet idea, but only if “always the same” is taken in a very static way. When we say that the Orthodox Church is the same Church as that of the Apostles, I know of no one who means that the Apostles prayed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or used precise language of one ousia and three hypostases. It seems to me that the very idea of a LIVING organism implies growth and maturity, and goes hand in hand with the already/not yet view of the Didache.


  7. Andrew – I agree with what you wrote. The growth and maturity line especially! One of the comments I remember is “we’re looking for the New Testament Church.” as if the Church we have now is that Church: which it clearly is not. By one read of history we can say we are the same organisation advanced in age and maturity by 2,000 years… but don’t expect us to be “the New Testament Church”.

  8. A quick note. I post on Huw’s blog periodically.

    I see a tension in the living Church argument. That is precisely the argument most often used by the “progressives” in various mainline denominations to say that we are a living Church that is not tied to begin an NT Church. This really means, “We can change anything we want because we have the Holy Spirit.”

    The living Church viewpoint has to be balanced with a “these are the borders” viewpoint or else . . . . For instance, St. Peter was not only married, he and other apostles took their wives with them on their travels (see 1 Cor.). On what authority do we deny married men the episcopate, particularly when one of the epistles warns us that in future times there will come those who forbid marriage?

    I am Orthodox, but I truly believe that we have seriously erred in this point of non-married hierarchs only and that appealing to a “living Church” is an insufficient argument by itself. The argument for a living Church must walk hand in hand with an argument as to how it can be judged whether the “living Church” is walking correctly. And that argument cannot simply be “whatever the bishops decide,” otherwise we may open ourselves up to anything.

  9. Hmmm . . . I find it very hard to try to ‘recreate’ this NT Church for a few reasons:

    (1) many of the NT writings which describe the ekklesia of the times (e.g., Acts, the epistles of Paul) are describing the ekklesia within the context of an existing and ongoing Temple worship, of which we know some things but not the entirety as to what it was like . . . the apostles, when in Jerusalem, went to the Temple to pray and when among the diaspora went to the synagogues. Thus, I think it is unrealistic to presume that the way the ekklesia should function post-destruction of the Temple would be the same as prior to 70 A.D. Although the understanding of the Church as the Body or Bride is expressed in the apostolic witness, many ideas about how the day-to-day life of the Church is expressed had to be addressed after that fateful time when the Temple was destroyed and when, as Flavius Josephus records, during the Feast of Pentecost as the priests entered the inner court of the Temple they heard a great noise and the voices of a multitude saying ‘we are leaving this place!’

    That is to say, we can’t expect the witness of the apostles, except perhaps in the later writings of John, to adequately describe the features of the worship and praxis of the Church (unless we want to append the Temple and synagogue worship context to it – and do we have this preserved for us?) precisely because it is so early.

    (2) In some ways the NT canon as THE canon of scriptures allows no conclusive or principled means (IMO) in separating out the life and faith of the ‘primitive church’ as something conclusively discernible from the faith and beliefs of those who settled the canon. If we accept the canon as authoritative, we must accept it on the authority of those that brought it. Is the primitive church one that accepts the theology found in the book of Hebrews? 2 Peter? What about the Apocalypse? These writings were not entirely accepted even in Eusebius’ day, although by St. Cyril of Jerusalem they appear (other than the Apocalypse of John) to have become so. In shorthand, IMO it’s difficult to reliably pull back the curtain on the Nicene/Post-Nicene era faith to find ‘another’ Christianity that is different from it without putting the whole shebang up for grabs (hey, why not the Gospel of Thomas?). While we can read Ignatius and Iranaeus, Justin Martyr, the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas ‘within’ the context of this Nicene-faith Church, the normative historical Christianity, the alternative of reading these writings ‘without’ or in contradistiction to the Church is to wade into a morass – truly a ‘Frankenstein’ of whatever we pick and choose to read and how we choose to interpret it.

    When I read the description of the practices and liturgical outline of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lectures), the writings of St. Hilary of Poitiers, of St. Basil, of St. Athanasius, and of St. Ephraim the Syrian, all near contemporaries, I see a faith and practice (beliefs about baptism, creed, eucharist, polity, ecclesiology) which is the Nicene faith, and to which the Orthodox now continue to be faithful.

    There seems to me to be a big gulf between the ‘Eucharistic Group’ (my term) of the Copts, the Syrian-Jacobite Churches, the Assyrian Christians, the Armenians, the (Greek) Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the RCC, and the ‘newer’ Christian groups. All of these that have muddled along with an unbroken historic connection and have fundamentally the same recognizable characteristics about Eucharist, Baptism, Creed (Nicene – let’s leave Chalcedon for a rainy day), Polity, and basic ecclesiology. If there’s any assurance about normative Christianity, it is in these things, whatever our disagreements about the nuances (and these may be quite important, to be sure!).

    When I think of the ‘living Church’ – I see it as not simply the ‘here and now’ but a wider ‘here and now’ that recognizes the great cloud of witnesses are still ‘in the now.’ Thus, St. Athanasius is a Bishop emeritus of the Church as stands watching us all. We hear his voice, and the voices of the other Saints across the centuries but relevant to us now. This is the big break on ill-considered innovation that say – aha! New Revelation! I find the St. Vincent of Lerins model fairly useful in assessing these things.

    Nonetheless, initially it is committed to our bishops and the presbyters to implement the ‘guidance’ of the canons to particular pastoral situations and they will have to answer for their ministry, whether it was exercised with excessive use of economy or strictness. We should be respecters of authority (not mindless, but respectful) and answer well for our own conduct. On some questions, like Ernesto’s, while I don’t know what it would reveal, perhaps it would be informative if not conclusive, to look at what the wider ‘Eucharistic Group’s’ witness on the matter of married bishops has to say. What do the ‘non-Chalcedonians’ do; how about the Copts or the Ethiopian Orthodox?? Does this suggest anything to us about consistent teaching in the ancient precints of where the Church has been?

    Sorry for the longish post.

  10. “…but don’t expect us to be ‘the New Testament Church.'”

    I suppose you’re right; “New Testament Church” as far as I know does not appear in any Orthodox source before “Becoming Orthodox.” This is the Protestant quest that Clifton described in the original post. But I really don’t see a problem with Orthodox Christians saying it. I’m pretty certain that everyone who says this in the Orthodox Church simply means that Orthodoxy is the present-day Church most continuous with the Church founded by Christ and the Apostles, not that it is the SAME as the NT Church in every respect.

    “That is precisely the argument most often used by the progressives in various mainline denominations to say that we are a living Church that is not tied to begin an NT Church. This really means, ‘We can change anything we want because we have the Holy Spirit.'”

    I suppose this is where faith comes in. All churches and religious communities change and adapt over time; I wouldn’t expect the right one to be any different. As Christians, taking the Bible and the resurrection of Christ for granted, we have to ask which church (or churches) today is the true development of what our Lord Jesus Christ founded in the first century. There’s really no way to “prove” conclusively that Orthodoxy is it, but I don’t believe it is so much about finding the church that has not changed, but about finding the one that through change still preserves the original faith delivered to the saints.

  11. As everyone here knows this is the point I wrestle with. But regarding Ernesto’s comment… I guess there are two ways to go with “living church”: one is the current road of many mainline denominations – who can change anything. When I say living, I mean it: even those passed on have a vote. But see the issue of celibacy… clearly, at some point… neither the voice of all the married bishops of the past (including St Gregory of Nyssa) nor the voice of all the married presbyters in the West, was given enough weight to balance out the then-current desire for innovation.

    Why is that? Don’t know. So *somethings* can change. Wives, church design, etc.

    Andrew wrote: “There’s really no way to “prove” conclusively that Orthodoxy is it, but I don’t believe it is so much about finding the church that has not changed, but about finding the one that through change still preserves the original faith delivered to the saints.”

    Amen… I know in the Liturgy of St John we say “We have found the true faith: worshipping the undivided Trinity….” and in the WR travelling prayers we say, “The Catholic Faith is this: that we worship. And that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in unity.” “Catholic” = “Whole” and “Universal”. That is the entire faith…

    Now, where we take it after that is anyone’s guess. But I’m all for letting the past have more of a say than we have.

  12. Clifton,

    That may be the single best critque of restoration pattern theology I’ve ever read. It’s hard to get more “pattern” in Scripture than the tabernacle yet even that needed someone filled with the Spirit to accomplish the building of it.

    Drawing the analogy of some latter day “scientist” (I’m thinking of Alexander Campbell here) trying to put the Church back together again and the work of Dr. Frankenstein in the creation of the Monster is brilliant. Of course, we all know that Frankenstein’s Monster is a work of fiction, that it is not given to humanity to breathe life into the dead. Yet how many have tried assemble the parts and breath life into a dead church (in their eyes).

  13. A point of fact: the Oriental Orthodox churches (Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians and Syrians) have precisely the same discipline as regards clerical marriage and married clergy as do the Orthodox: married men may be ordained to the diaconate and presbyterate, but may not marry (if unmarried at ordination) or (re)marry (if widowed) after ordination, and all bishops must be celibates because they must be monks. The Assyrians have a quite different discipline: down to 484 (when their Synod of Seleucia altered their early discipline, a decision which was reaffirmed by a second Synod of Seleucia in 496) no man could be ordained deacon, presbyter or bishop who was married or who had ever been married, and all those being ordained had to pledge absolute continence for the rest of their lives. But in 484, in response to the strong “pro-natalism” of the Zoroastrian Persian monarchy, and in hopes of winning a respite from the almost constant persecutions which they had to endure, the Assyrians decided that nor only could married men be ordained as deacons, priests and bishops, but that bishops, priests and bishops could remarry, if they were widowed, as many times as they wished. Indeed, men and women hoping to become monks or nuns were forbidden to take vows of chastity until they had either been married for a certain number of years (if childless) or had born/begotten at least two children. With the fall of the Persian monarchy to the Moslem Arabs between 637/641, this last requirement became a dead letter, and by the end of the Seventh
    Century the Assyrian Church had adopted the requirement that all bishops must be monks, thus putting an end to a married episcopate. To this day, however, deacons and priests in the Assyrian Church mat marry or remarry after ordination, as well as before it.

    The identity of discipline between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox argues that the present Orthodox discipline as regards bishops and marriage must have existed for some considerable time, i.e., centuries, before it was formalized at the Council in Trullo in 691 or 692. And, indeed, I am aware of no examples whatsoever of bishops or priests marrying after ordination, nor of deacons either, with one single ambiguous exception in the Fourth Century, just as I am unaware of any post-Constantinian “married bishop” who can be shown with any degree of clarity to have continued to live with and beget children upon his wife after becoming a bishop.

  14. It seems Dr. Tighe has answered that question. It seems to stem from a time when the canon was closing.

    I think this same communion has something to teach us about the EO 7th Ecumenical Council regarding images. I don’t know the full history, but certainly despite not recognizing the ecumenicity of the council (indeed, nothing after the first three), these Churches nontheless venerate the Saints and make use of icons.

    I apologize for my lack of precision in writing ‘non-Chalcedonians’ and Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox as if these are not in communion with one another – my understanding is that the Oriental Orthodox include the Armenian Church, the Syrian-Orthodox, the Coptic Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. and that, generally, they prefer to be referred to as non-Chalcedonian (but I am happy to be corrected and if I missed any, please let me know!).

    I apologize for my imprecision in not distinguishing between the Eucharistic Group and the ‘newer Christian bodies’ more carefully – it is the group of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian and Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) communions to which I refer as the ‘Eucharistic Group’ having a common basic and distinguishable faith from modern non-sacramental or even mainline semi-sacramental Chrisitan groups.

    And if I’ve offended any, please forgive me . . . these conversations would probably be better had over some pints of beer in person where tone, pace, context, and body language could convey true meaning.

    And I wish you all a fine weekend!

  15. “I think this same communion has something to teach us about the EO 7th Ecumenical Council regarding images. I don’t know the full history, but certainly despite not recognizing the ecumenicity of the council (indeed, nothing after the first three), these Churches nontheless venerate the Saints and make use of icons.”

    True of the “Oriental Orthodox” (or non-Chalcedonians) who are indeed all in communion with one another (but not with the Assyrians), although the OOs are more “flexible” in their iconography than the Orthodox (Coptic churches, at least in the USA, appear to have taken quite a fancy to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” for example, as versions of it are often set prominently upon the iconostasis). The Assyrians, by contrast, have been traditionally averse to all pictorial images, and have used only the bare Cross (without the Corpus) in their churches.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s