Miroslav Volf

The Conrad Grebel Review 18, no. 3 (Fall 2000)

I'm very thankful that my respondents have taken the time and trouble to read so carefully and respond so graciously to what Maurice Lee and I have written. The challenges that have been thrown up here touch central issues and I will be able to respond to them only briefly.

I should say that I'm fully in agreement with Professor Fast Dueck's main points. In particular, I think that it is important to underscore the experience of grace in conjunction with liturgical celebration, as she rightly does. We need to find modes of liturgical celebration that not only portray the self-giving of Christ for our sins but underscore celebratively that the imitatio Christi is a deeply hopeful way of life, and help us live out our calling as a church. Although I've sometimes put things in rather technical language, a vision of spiritual life that needs to be liturgically celebrated and also prayed, fasted, and lived out communally is at the heart of what I am after. At the center of the Christian faith are, not our efforts to engage in Christian practices, but the gift of a new life that we have received through the Spirit of God.

Similarly, the best response I give in relation to Professor Pinnock's remarks is to utter a resounding "Amen" to the prayer at the very end of his response: "Come Creator Spirit." I take his whole response to be summarized in that prayer.

More extended comments are in order in relation to Professor Demson's and Professor Erb's responses. First, Professor Demson. I'm in basic agreement with the "critique" of the search for the historical Jesus that is associated with the "Yale School" (which my colleagues at Yale are not sure ever existed). I do not think that we should read the New Testament "as a theological reflection upon ... a 'reconstructed historical Jesus'"; even less am I interested in using the "reconstructed historical Jesus" as a criterion of what we are allowed to think and believe about Jesus Christ. But I'm not persuaded that an interest in the historical Jesus is theologically misplaced. If we are not going to have a disembodied, ahistorical form of Christian faith, then we have to be interested in historical research at least to the extent that if it could be shown that the picture that the gospel writers present is incompatible with what can be plausibly construed as an account of the historical Jesus, then we'd have to scratch our head and think twice about whether we can really affirm that. There has to be a certain kind of fit between the two. In the paper we have read the historical research from the perspective of the narrative of the gospel and suggested that this too is how one can construe it in historically plausible ways. The controlling thing for us is not the historical research but the Gospel narratives. I think if one inverts the primacy, as the historical Jesus research has always tended to do, one will inevitably mirror the reigning cultural plausibilities and, when all is said and done, end up with a rather boring and humanly uninteresting picture of Jesus. Although I tend not to be as negative about historical Jesus research as is Luke Timothy Johnson in The Real Jesus, when I read his second volume, Living Jesus, it struck me how much more interesting the Christ of the New Testament is than the so-called "historical Jesus."

"Enacting?" Maybe saying that the church "enacts" the Reign of God is too strong. "Anticipating" or "portraying" or "provisionally embodying," in a more than simply verbal or symbolic sense, might be better. I think a sense of anticipation, in a broken way instantiating that which is being spoken about, is what I would want to claim for the church. Anything less would not give sufficient weight to the presence of Christ by the Spirit in the church.

I don't think it is adequate to construe the relations of the economic Trinity simply in terms of the Spirit being sent by Christ. The Spirit has to be seen on the economic level as also constituting Christ. The gospel narratives bear witness to that. Now, the difficult question is what one concludes, from this observation concerning the life of the economic Trinity, about the way in which we understand the immanent Trinity. That brings me to a second issue. I think I would argue for a stronger distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity than I see in the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. As Yves Congar, among others, has pointed out, Rahner's dictum that the economic Trinity is the immanent and vice versa is too strong. One needs to distinguish between the two, while not separating them. If that is the case, one could suggest that to speak of the Father "commanding" and the Son "obeying" is quite appropriate for the life of the economic Trinity but, strictly speaking, not fully adequate for the life of the immanent Trinity. Not fully adequate because I don't know what "commanding" means applied to persons who are equally divine and who would therefore always already know what the command would be and would always already be willing to do precisely that. I don't know how to imagine the possibility of such a relationship within the immanent Trinity. The language of equality can be idolatrous; anything can. We would be ill-advised to insist only on formal equality in social terms. An exclusive stress on formal equality ends up emptying relationships of their proper content. Rather, formal equality must be affirmed together with, for instance, the notions of grace, service, humility, and mutual deference, and alongside with perfect love, which implies equality in relation to persons standing on the same ontological footing. In contemporary Western culture, formal equality is immediately associated with the claim to particular rights, and so the basic mode in which people operate in relationship to one another is as claimants to rights. For very important reasons which would be too involved to go into here, the Christian tradition must both affirm the importance of and transcend rights talk. The Christian tradition goes much deeper when it emphasizes love. If this deeper side of things is rediscovered, the notions of self-giving and obedience can be retrieved. Love implies both self-giving and equality, both submission and the absence of a unidirectional, stable hierarchy.

Though I have to continue to disagree with him, I am very thankful that Professor Demson has raised the issues of submission and equality, both with respect to the Trinity and with respect to human relations. For these are extraordinarily important issues and neither flat talk about equality nor quick appeals to hierarchy will do.

Responding to Professor Erb's more extensive comments will be more difficult because he engages not only the text Maurice Lee and I wrote but also my books After Our Likeness and, to a lesser extent, Exclusion and Embrace. I'll respond on my own behalf only; and before I make a few brief substantive comments, let me note one misunderstanding. My claim is not that reconciliation in Christian vision has no social meaning. To the contrary; my claim is that certain understandings of reconciliation rob it of its proper social character.

I do engage ecclesiological questions from a particular tradition, the free church tradition in which I was raised. So my reflection is not undertaken "from outside historically-given institutions." I realize that that is not good enough for some of my friends, especially those from the Orthodox and Catholic traditions. But I would resist the suggestion that I am operating with some "ahistorical transcendent norm," unless, of course, Scripture itself as read by these communities is seen as such.

My argument in After Our Likeness is not that free church ecclesiology is the best ecclesiology for all times and places; my argument is (1) that it is a legitimate ecclesiology such that a refusal to affirm the ecclesiality of the free churches (a persistent attitude of both the Orthodox and the Catholic hierarchies!) is unwarranted, and (2) that free church ecclesiology can be construed to be resonant with the very core of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity. This said, I can well imagine situations in which a hierarchical constitution of the church would be not only legitimate but preferable. As Professor Erb rightly suggests, however, when hierarchy is preferable, it is not on account of the virtues of hierarchy itself but on account of the "fallen creation" — more precisely, a particular form of the "fallen creation" — of which the church is also a part. And as I indicated above in my response to Professor Demson, "equality" does need to be redeemed, and I would fully agree that it must be "fully enclosed and reborn within the Sacred Heart (of Jesus)" were it not for all the historical baggage that that term carries with it. At the heart of the church's life is the Eucharist and at the heart of Eucharist is the self-giving of Christ.

Finally, a few words on the relationship between the Spirit and ecclesial institutions. I make a forceful argument in After Our Likeness that I consider the church to be an institution. Hence I connect very much the work of the Spirit with institutions. The central question is not whether the church is an institution but what kind of institution it is, and not whether the Spirit is related to the church as institution but how the Spirit is related. This is a complicated issue, and I'll have to leave it here at that.

Once again, let me thank the respondents for their hard work and generous comments.