The Second Eclectic

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Wheaton Theology Conference: Jeremy Begbie on Ecclesiology

Jeremy Begbie presented another winsome paper discussing how N.T. Wright has become a major resource for the emerging church. (Apparently, Wright met with some of its leaders earlier in the week.) Begbie points out how strange these bedfellows are:

“Here is a movement led largely by those at the younger end of things, who are highly critical of top-down professional management, centralized organizational structure, tight hierarchical control, a heavy commitment to land and buildings, and so on. And yet here is an Anglican bishop, well past—well, let’s just say ‘past’—his youthful years, an ecclesiastical figurehead living in a castle, and no less at home in the House of Lords, working for an ancient institution—the Church of England—that owns vast expanses of land, seems pathologically bureaucratic, and moves with glacial slowness down antediluvian, ecclesiastical valleys.”

Begbie put it well, “On the face of it, this is odd.” To say the least.

More than critiquing Wright’s work, Begbie looked for commonalities between Wright’s theology and emerging ecclesiology. For one, Wright’s understanding of the people of God supports the missional perspective, which is currently driving emerging mission. Wright believes the Church is the community through which God is working to put the whole world to rights. The Church is “cosmically situated” for that renewal.

Second, Wright proposes an answer to a problem that hasn’t been addressed (or even raised), but I think the problem is undermining the North American church. That is, “What is the connection between personal salvation in Christ and the Church’s corporate work and practice?” This isn’t only a theological question; it’s a practical one because how the Church thinks of itself changes what the Church does. If a person is “once saved, always saved,” the Church is a tacked-on burden-by-peer-pressure.

Wright’s vision of the people of God begins to rectify this rift between salvation and the Church. He reconnects salvation to the Church by emphasizing what the individual is saved for and not just what s/he is saved from. Salvation incorporates the believer into a community with a united vision and purpose. It shifts the focus away from using church as a means for strengthening my personal relationship with Christ. (Reader, pay attention!)

This vision also admonishes some within the emerging movement as well. It critiques the movement’s suspicion of the church as an institution, which has led some to give up meeting in any formal way. For believers to be “in Christ” they cannot be separated from the body of Christ.

And in the end, Begbie’s best criticism was for the emerging church, not Wright. He pointed out what many know, that the emerging church is homogenous in multiple ways. As an antidote to this, Begbie believes, structures like denominational ties impose community upon diversity, bringing together people who aren’t like each other and may not like each other. These structures even force diverse groups together.

Wright’s response was a matter of emphasis more than any disagreement. He warned against conflating Jesus and the Church. The church is the body of Christ, but it is not Christ. Jesus’ work on the Cross and his resurrection work in the world is his work, not the Church’s. Believing otherwise, Wright argues, leads the church to unwarranted triumphalism or to equally unwarranted despair.

This is a great relief in my view. It relieves the Church from having to “change the world” or to “be Jesus with skin on.” Wright’s distinction between Jesus and the Church permeates his writing, but I don’t know whether it is an explicit subject of his writing. This would be a valuable contribution to understanding Wrightian theology: “What is Jesus’ relationship to the Church and what are the Church’s roles?”


Jim Vining offers a more structured, systematic outline of Begbie's paper.

TallSkinnyKiwi offers some scattered thoughts on it as well.

Brian Fulthorp at sunestauromai responds to Mike Wittmer's post and says that Wright emphasizes community redemption too much and individual salvation not enough.

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