Friday, June 22, 2012

6 questions for Simon Chan on him and his book 'Pentecostal Ecclesiology: An Essay on the Development of Doctrine'

1) Dr. Chan, you have written a rich small book to recover a robust understanding of church in relation to the third person of God, the Holy Spirit. Although the title of the book is ‘Pentecostal Ecclesiology’, I—a non-Pentecostal Presbyterian—find the content of the book very applicable for the wider Christian community. Your proposal is explicitly ecumenical in character, drawing and engaging across different traditions ranging from Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. If I may summarize the whole book in one sentence, I would say that you are presenting to us an understanding of the church as actualized by an ecumenical pneumatology. In your words: “…the Pentecost event is the coming of the Holy Spirit in his own person to indwell the church, making the church an essential part of the story of the Spirit and hence part of the story of the triune God. This personal indwelling is actualized supremely in the church as the communion of the Spirit.” (p.9, emphasis original)

May I ask how did this project developed through the years in your own study and research?

Since writing Spiritual Theology in 1998, the doctrine of the church has been very much on my mind. Subsequent articles and books have dealt with the subject of the church directly or indirectly. Two previous articles in particular set out my initial thoughts: “Mother Church: Toward a Pentecostal Ecclesiology” (Pneuma) and “The Church and the Development of Doctrine” (Journal of Pentecostal Theology), while Liturgical Theology addresses the ecclesiological deficit among evangelicals.  You are right that the ecclesiology expounded here is quite ecumenical, but I want to show that an ecumenical ecclesiology is essentially a Pentecostal ecclesiology, and vice versa. Pentecostals need not be embarrassed by their distinctive experience because their experience makes good sense when viewed in the light of the larger Christian tradition.

2) This is related to the first question, was there any turning point, particular encounter, event, or concern that has prompted you to deliberate over this issue in an ecumenical manner?

The book is also motivated by a pastoral concern. Over the years I have noticed a tendency among Pentecostal scholars to question their own tradition without, in my view, giving it a fair hearing. They have simply drunk too much from the wells of evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism. Being largely influenced by these traditions, they lack an explicit ecclesiology to ground their experience. In these traditions, church is not a theological reality but merely a sociological reality. But where do we go to learn our ecclesiology? I think Orthodoxy (and to a lesser extent Catholicism) has a doctrine of the church which comports best with Pentecostal experience.  I believe that Orthodox ecclesiology may actually save Pentecostal experience from evangelical and mainline Protestant dilution.

3) You pointed out that, “Creation does not have its own autonomous purpose to which the church is called to serve; rather what God intends for creation can only be understood in terms of what He intends for the church and what the Spirit is doing in the church. […] In sum, instead of subsuming the church under creation, Orthodoxy subsumes creation under the church.” (p.25)

In view of this relationship between the church and the creation, what would be your suggestion for the type of language needed for the church to communicate, be it critique or constructive, with the non-church surrounding? (Let’s say on the dignity of foetus, should the church respond to the non-church by invoking the theological assertion that human life is God’s image-bearer and hence should not be aborted on the basis of the mother’s prerogative?)

Much of “public theology” today is concerned with how the church should learn to speak the language of the world. The trouble is that while theologians are trying to teach the church  to speak the world’s language they have forgotten to speak their own native language: the language of Zion. As a result, you end up, as is the case with mainline Protestantism, letting the world set the agenda for the church as seen in Uppsala. The church is always a few steps behind trying to catch up with what is “latest” goings-on in the world. The recent talk by Prof. Kwok Pui Lan is a good example of this kind of public theology.

I think the church must be acquainted with its own language first; only then can she speak the world’s language. After all, it has a long history of dealing with the world and  it has 2,000 years of spiritual resources to draw from. We must see the world in the light of what God is doing in the church because the church is God’s ultimate intention, not the world. The Orthodox response to the WCC Canberra Assembly typifies this approach. Our approach to the various socio-political issues confronting the church today must stem from a firm conviction that the church provides the ultimate framework for dealing with them.  One does not have to announce to the world that man is God’s image bearer, but unless one is firmly convinced that he is,  no truly Christian public theology could emerge. The history of Protestantism in last two hundred years is proof that a public theology in which the world sets its agenda for the church simply does not work. In its attempts to commend Christianity to its cultured despisers à la Schleiermacher, it has only succeeded in alienating the faithful.

4) Your point to subsume “creation under the church” and that, “The Spirit is primarily the Spirit of the church and through and in the church creation finds its ultimate meaning and fulfilment,” (p.9) may be objected by others as triumphalistic in the sense that such understanding elevates the church over against all other secular and religious realities in the world. How would you respond to this?

It is triumphalistic only if it is not true. But if it is true, why should it be considered triumphalistic? The church is not simply an entity among other entities, but the ultimate expression of that human reality, united to Christ through the Spirit rendering eternal worship to the Father, with angels and archangels and all the heavenly hosts, and with all non-human creation in “a chain of hypostatic existence.” The problem arises only because Protestantism starts with a  faulty view of the church: if the church is merely a sociological entity among several other sociological entities, then it would be presumptuous to speak of the church in this way.

5) It is interesting that you traced the cause of evangelicals’ preference for credo-baptism to individualism. “This failure [to acknowledge the corporate-objective dimension of the faith] explains why evangelicals are mostly credo- rather than paedo-baptists and also generally anti-sacramental. For to recognize the objectivity of the faith implies that there are objective things (the sacraments and core practices) which are the concrete works of the Spirit. […] The way forward for evangelicals (and here we must include Pentecostals) is to recognize that the church in its gathering around word and sacrament is no longer just a collectivity of individuals, but is constituted a corporate entity of the Spirit. It is the body of Christ and temple of the Spirit.” (p.79)

You helpfully alerted us to the realism of the sacraments which is concrete regardless of individual’s subjective response to them. However, wouldn’t the emphasis of corporate realism over the subjectivity of the person also upset the healthy tension of the Spirit's work between the corporate and the individual? In other words, how do we emphasize one over the other since it seems that either way would upset a balanced understanding of the Spirit's activity on and in the church?

Only as the church is conceived as a corporate, sacramental reality made up of distinct persons filled with the Spirit could we then speak of any tension between the corporate and the individual. Without the corporate dimension we end up with a church reduced to a collectivity of self-determining individuals. Evangelicalism does not have to deal with any tension because it has eliminated the corporate. 

6) You said that “we must see the world in the light of what God is doing in the church,” how would you respond if someone asks you, “If the church herself is not perfect and has misconducted herself in the past, why should we place her above the world? Or, your corporate church is really a theological ideal which is not historical?”

The church itself is not perfect, but she is still meant to fulfil a divine purpose which is more ultimate than the purpose for which God created the world. It has to do with their respective purposes in God's eternal plan. No, I am not idealizing the church. To do so and distinguish it from the historical church would be docetism. For all its faults, she will eventually be the Bride of Christ, even if it takes eons to realize.


Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Great post again. Very interesting perspectives. Thanks.


reasonable said...

We have potentially two perspectives:

1. The Church is God's tool to bring about the intended future Redeemed Creation (the new heavens & the new earth united)

2. The creation's redemption is to bring about the intended future relatively-Perfect Church

A tentative proposal is that the two are one: the future Redeemed Creation (via narratives such as that expounded by N T Wright) is the future Church (of which the current Church is the Future-Church-in-the-making). Under this tentative proposal, this means both perspectives 1 & 2 are correct. The future Church (this does not deny the ontological significance of the current Church) is that "intended future-Creation" of that "perfect" Community of loving beings.

But wait... the future ultimate existence comprises not only human sentient beings, but also angelic beings and animals and non-living objects.... hmmm.... so unless the "Church" is seen as comprises both human and non-human sentient beings plus the non-living objects, otherwise, the "Ultimate Future" may not be just the Church, but the Church + other living an non-living beings, which means the Ultimate Creation may be bigger than the Ultimate Church, or, in mathematically, the Ultimate Church is a subset of the Ultimate Creation.