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Identifying the otherwise invisible culture of salvation

October 16, 2010

Since I mentioned the paper I’m in the process of writing I thought I might post an extract from the early section.

However, to bypass these preliminary questions I would characterize the situation in the following way. Where Hauerwas and Jenson and others are predominantly concerned with the dangers of a protestant abstraction of salvation from the life and practices of the community of Christ (in the thinking of their predecessors and contemporaries) rendering the gospel apolitical and other worldly, Kerr et al are predominantly concerned with the dangers of a domestication of salvation within the life and practices of the church, rendering the church’s culture totalitarian and self-serving.

In this paper I hope to begin to address what I perceive to be these latter concerns – concerns which I take to fit broadly under the category of ‘ecclesiocentricity’. Therefore, rather than engaging this debate on its own slippery terms I will proceed by offering a terminological suggestion which is really a methodological matter for ecclesiology related to the peculiar visibility and invisibility of what we call church. The argument will have a negative aspect in that I am concerned to protect the invisibility of the church and here the question of terminology will play a role. On the positive aspect I will seek to point in the direction of the form which the properly eccentric church is given in its peculiarly theological visibility.

Invisibility and identification

The church is not invisible by virtue of being ahistorical, transcending temporality and the time between the times, or because it exists in some other metaphysical dimension. The invisibility of the church is a function of its theological nature. And in this respect its invisibility is a matter of identification rather than identity. By this I mean that the theological nature of the church means that it is not self-evident which among all the objects of vision within the world is the church. This claim is, I believe, key to what follows.

Taking it seriously means protecting the invisibility of the church against all sorts of theological projects which find ways of bypassing the problem of identification. On the other hand this claim is key to a via positiva which indicates the church’s specific historical character and thus of an ecclesiology which is rigorous not merely about the identity of the church but about the identification of the same.

Of course I do not imply that identification and identity are separable. As any student of twentieth century philosophy of language will know, to use a word like ‘church’ according to the rules of communication involves both identification and identity. The question I am addressing is whether our language game here is a theologically disciplined language game which respects the theological visibility which the church has. In this sense visibility depends on who’s looking. It is one thing to say that an object is visible, it is another to say that it is visible ‘as’ some particular entity. Thus the visibility of the church should not be confused with generic visibility, as Bonhoeffer appears to do when he argues from the spatiality of the church (and the incarnation) to its visibility. Whether this argument is valid depends on the coherence of the notion of generic visibility. In my view there is no such thing as generic visibility consequent upon spatiality. There is only ‘visibility as’. Seeing is an interpretative act.

But of course there really is seeing. It is part of the core facticity of Jewish and Christian experience that salvation has a history and its own sociality. Election is not the selection but the creation by grace of that sociality and history. In that sense I affirm with the catholic and orthodox tradition (and in contrast to the more dialectically minded) that the life of the triune God has been rendered historically participable and visibly participable in a particular way albeit in an eschatalogically incomplete manner. Here we enter the domain of ecclesiology

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Flett permalink
    October 16, 2010 10:46 am

    I look forward to seeing the whole thing

  2. bruce hamill permalink
    October 26, 2010 2:22 am

    When I’ve finished I’ll send you a copy. Just send your email to

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