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Hauerwas’s Response

January 19, 2011

Stanley Hauerwas has responded to Nathan Kerr and other critics in a recent essay entitled “Beyond the Boundaries: The Church is Mission”. It is published in “Walk Humbly with the Lord: Church and Mission Engaging Plurality, edited by Viggo Mortensen and Andreas Oesterund Nielsen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2010). It is available online via google books. He opens with a quote from Yoder which highlights one of the things he thinks Kerr fails to understand, namely the strong resemblance between Yoder’s and Hauerwas’s positions. It is a quote worth reflecting on.

 

The political novelty that God brings into the world is a community of those who serve instead of ruling, who suffer instead of inflicting suffering, whose fellowship crosses social lines instead of reinforcing them. The new Christian community in which the walls are broken down not by human idealism or democratic legalism but by the work of Christ is not only a vehicle of the gospel or only a fruit of the gospel; it is the good news. It is not merely the agent of mission or the constituency of a mission agency. This is the mission.

 

Unfortunately I find that Hauerwas’s and (at certain points in this citation) Yoder’s language tends to gloss over key distinctions I want to make.

 

To begin with this citation. It is one thing for the church to be ‘the mission’, something I happily affirm and another thing for it to be the ‘good news’. I would interpret good news to be that to which the church witnesses, and in the first instance the church does not witness to itself.

 

Hauerwas goes on to say things like “The story cannot be abstracted from the people that embody the story”. Of this I would say firstly, that the church is not primarily ‘the people that embody the story’ but the people that embody the coming rule of God because they participate in the ongoing mission of the God whose story they tell. Secondly, it is one thing to abstract the story from the people who tell it, which I don’t think I would want to do, but another thing to distinguish the people from the story – something I would want to do. Again the point is that the people do not tell a story which is, first of all about themselves. Elsewhere Hauerwas talks of the necessity of the stories of the witnesses being told along with their witness. However again I think he fails to make an important distinction. It is commonly said that The Acts of the Apostles would be better entitled The Acts of the Holy Spirit. I think this is correct even though the story of the Mission of God includes within it the story of the mission of the people of God.

 

Finally in this crucial section where he seeks to defend his blurring of the distinction between Christ and the church, he anticipates critics with the comment that ‘It is true that what God has done in Christ is true and good even though we are unfaithful witnesses, but that does not mean that someone somewhere is not a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. Finally the teller and the tale are one.’ I am not sure what to make of this statement. At first glance it seems that he is not wanting to shy away from the assertion that the truth and goodness of God mission is conditional upon the existence of adequate or faithful witness somewhere (even if it is not ‘we’ who are faithful). This does not say nearly enough to allay my concerns. After all it seems to me that always and everywhere the church remains partial in its witness and sinful in spite of the transforming power of the Spirit. I would conclude that he is suggesting that in this situation the truth and goodness of ‘what God has done in Christ’ remains partial and sinful. Then there is the question of the oneness intended by his final one-liner ‘finally the teller and tale are one’. Is he suggesting that it is an eschatological affirmation the church will be the gospel. It seems to me to be a categorical confusion to identify the teller and the tale, but I must be missing something. Perhaps someone could help me with what I am not understanding here. I have a feeling that it has something to do with his view of truth. Unfortunately he is not explicit on this… enough for now.

 

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