July 8, 2010
John Webster kicked off the proceedings at the Controversy Conference with his lecture “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” and as one might’ve expected from a man like Webster, it was profound, sophisticated, systematic, and rooted thoroughly in the doctrine of God. I might add that it was rooted in a thoroughly metaphysical doctrine of God, though I do not mean that pejoratively (a caveat one has to make in this anti-metaphysical age). His argument was essentially methodological, and sought to make two main points.
First, attempts to discuss the issue of controversy and conflict in the Church generally move immediately to the ethical, the imperative, without first establishing the theological, the indicative. Exhortations to overcome conflict thus degenerate into empty moralizing. Instead of this, we must, like St. Paul, first establish who God is and what He has done, and then we can construct ethical imperatives to act in accord with what is already the case by virtue of God’s character.
Second, this theological account which we must first provide is one in which peace is ontologically prior to violence, where being is good and evil is a privation of being, not a counter-being, in other words, the venerable Augustinian account of evil, enriched by his discussion of peace from City of God 19. Anything else ends in Manichaeanism, in which conflict is just as basic to the world as peace, intrinsic to the Church’s life and inescapable.
Webster began by contesting the common claim, mentioned in the introductory post about this conference, that it is through conflict that truth comes to light, that conflict makes clear what would else have remained obscure. We may think this is so, he said, but this is an illusion that comes from the dramatic oversimplification of the options that conflict engenders. In the midst of conflict, we artificially draw black-and-white distinctions that, while they appear to facilitate a triumph of rationality, are actually its downfall. We have two basic options, according to Webster: either we can see conflict as the natural condition of reason, or else it is an aberration from God who is the principle of order and peace. We must see it as the latter, because peace is ontologically prior to violence, and is indeed the guarantee of the possibility of reason. “An account of peaceful conduct,” he said, “rests upon a dogmatic account of the peace that God is and bestows.”
God is both the principle and the pattern of creaturely peace, but the former, said Webster, is generally ignored in favor of the latter. In other words, we exhort ourselves to be ethically conformed to the pattern of God’s peacefulness, without first meditating on how God provides the source and foundation for peaceable being. To do this requires that we reflect on who God is in himself. But of course we run into an immediate problem--we cannot know God as he is in himself. We must, said Webster, let this inhibition stand, but nonetheless recognize that God summons us into his inner presence by his outward activities.
In his account of the immanent Trinity, Webster’s hidden interlocutors were surely modern “dynamic trinitarians” (to coin a phrase, if it isn’t already one) like Moltmann and Jenson. The works of the Trinity, he said, are fully harmonious; there is no disorder, disruption, or contradiction in God’s making of the world, and thus not also in the inner life of God. At this point I found myself torn; on the one hand, of course--how could it be otherwise--God is perfect peace and harmony. On the other hand, I have learned too much at the feet of “dynamic trinitarians,” people who emphasized the ways in which the Godhead is also the archetype of diversity and creative tension, to be wholly satisfied. No disorder in God’s making of the world, sure; but could we say there was tension? And likewise in the inner life of God.
But let us let these objections rest for a moment, and follow Webster’s account out into the world of created being. Here he founded his case firmly on the Augustinian premise: Peace is intrinsic to creaturely being. Chaos is not a mode of being, but a declension from being. Conflict is devoid of ontological weight, because created nature is peaceful. Because of this, peace is first a property in the order of being, and only secondly a precept in the order of obligation--this is his recurring point about the indicative preceding the imperative.
In the New Testament narrative, peace is integral to grace; it is the chief product of Christ’s work of reconciliation. Peace is not first announced as a precept for the Church, but as a condition of the Church. The Church exists in peace as a function of the reconciliation of peace accomplished by Christ on the cross. This statement seems to locate the true being of the Church behind the visible church, and this will be troubling to many. The church that matters, many will object, is the actual visible church, and this is not peaceful; it is torn by conflict; we must seek to address this conflict, rather than offering ourselves false comfort that the Church really does exist in peace. An understandable objection, said Webster, but one that falls into the error of making practical ecclesiology the first theological science.
The summary precept of peacemaking, he said, is “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”--and this is not directed toward making peace real, but toward making peace visible. We must insist upon this, that our task is simply to make visible a peace which already defines the Church’s being, instead of manufacturing a peace where one does not yet exist; otherwise, our task is hopeless from the start. To be sure, conflict remains a present ecclesial reality, but what kind of reality? We must not assume, said Webster, that we can straightforwardly interpret the reality. We must read it in light of the illumination of the gospel of peace, by which we can see conflict for what it is: sin against peace. We must remember that vice is always contra naturam; it is not an ugly mode of being, but as a contrary to the mode of being. Conflict must not be described in a Manichaean way, as an eternal parallel to peace.
This all sounds great, but what does it really mean in practical terms? Does the rubber here ever meet the road? I was skeptical at this point in the lecture, but Webster went on to draw some very fruitful applications.
First, we must deploy intelligence to penetrate through the phenomenon of conflict to the peaceful nature underlying. That is to say, we must remember that, despite our conflict in the Church, we share a unity in Christ, and because of that, there is much else that we share. We must seek to discover this source of peace and unity that underlies our disagreements, and recognizing our conflict as a temporary aberration, seek to uncover its cause and dispel it.
Second, we must not attribute to conflict an irreducibility that it does not possess. If we get too worked up about conflict, then we attribute to a being that it lacks. If evil is non-being, then ultimately it is nothing to fear. If conflict is but a temporary aberration, then we can rest in confidence that it will be dispelled by faithful waiting upon Christ. We must see conflict for what it is, which is to say, as Webster put it with surprising eloquence, “The afterlife of what the gospel has already excluded, the lingering shadow that the rising sun has yet to chase away.” Therefore, in a sense, we do not need to make an assault upon conflict, but rather to reassure ourselves in confidence that no such assault is required.
None of this means that we are to blithely and complacently dismiss the fact of conflict, the fact that we may need to enter controversy at times to defend the peaceable kingdom, but it dramatically changes our attitude to it.
It means that we can lay down these three basic precepts for conflict and controversy:
- It must be a work of charity, for the Church and our neighbors.
- It must be exercised in common pursuit of divine truth.
- It must arise from and attend toward peace.
In order to approach controversy in this way, what kind of person does the theologian need to be? Webster asked.
Theological science requires grace-character. It requires tranquillity of mind, lack of ambition, competitiveness, and vain curiosity.
At this point, Webster paused to reflect on zeal--is zeal a virtue or a vice? How may zeal promote the peace of God in the Church? Zeal is a righteous form of anger, but an unstable one. What is the distinction between righteous and unrighteous anger? Corrupt anger corrodes both rational and common life; it reduces controversy to a hopelessly conflictual affair, and destroys the clear vision of intelligence. Righteous anger is cooler and more objective. It follows a judgment of reason. It is a public passion for Gospel truth. Anger through zeal does not destroy the operation of reason, but nevertheless it may impair its performance; therefore, zeal must be moderated by our recognition of the ontological priority of peace.
What should the conduct of theological controversy be? The Church does not dispute according to the fashion of the world. Four rules for edifying controversy can be laid down:
First, it must display and magnify the truth of the Gospel, whose author is peace. Controversy will only serve peace in the Church if it has an external orientation, toward an object outside of the disputing parties. It must not become reduced to a simple party strife.
Second, theological controversy must not allow divergence of opinion to become divergence of will. Concord in the Church is a union of will, not of opinion. We must recognize that those who differ from us in opinion often share the same will toward the same good. There are of course, cases in which this is not the case, where we do not share a common object of love; but when this is the case, these are disputes not in the Church, but about the Church, and here we must await the converting work of the Spirit.
Third, it must recognize the catholicity of the truth, a truth that exceeds any representation that we may make. This object of love over which we contend is one too profound for us to rightly grasp. We cannot ever “end our dealings with it.”
Fourth, it must be undertaken in tranquil confidence that the Spirit will illuminate the Church. We often let ourselves fall into a barren naturalism, in which appeals to Scripture founder on irreconcilable exegetical conflict. We lose faith that there is an efficacy in the Word, a Word that will make itself clear to us, and will resolve this conflict. We may be confident that exegesis, rightly pursued, will, by Christ’s aid, lead us to peace and resolution.
All that by way of exposition. Now some evaluation is in order. First, some words of ringing endorsement:
Although I might’ve wanted to put it in somewhat different, more Christocentric terms--Christ has conquered, he has brought us peace and guaranteed us peace--I thought his insistence on the priority of peace over conflict, the essential impotence of conflict, was fantastic. Too easily we get depressed over the conflicts all around us in the Church, or mired down in the midst of them, and forget that they are ultimately frivolous and insubstantial, Christ will preserve his Church, the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it, and any divisions that appear to loom large for us now will ultimately be reconciled in perfect harmony. Or else some of us get so intoxicated with the fumes of conflict that we come to imagine it as a positive good, as a joy to be indulged, rather than an aberration to be deplored. Certainly Webster provides us a wholesome corrective here. Conflict must never become an end in itself, but must be oriented toward peace, and that a just peace, not the peace of the merciless victor who has silenced all opposition. Nor is conflict inevitable or irresolvable--patient waiting upon Christ will reveal a resolution.
In particular, I liked Webster’s final point about the efficacy of the Word. Too true it is that, for all our passionate insistence on the authority of Scripture, we treat it as a dead letter. One side alleges texts that prove their point, and the other side insists upon other texts, or demands a better exegesis of the opponent’s texts. Both seem trapped by certain hermeneutical assumptions, and conclude that it is hopeless; the text remains silent about its interpretation, and so the quarrel will never be adjudicated. But in Scripture we do not have a dead letter to reckon with, but a living Word, a Word continually made efficacious by the Spirit who breathes it and the Son about whom it speaks. This Word will reveal itself to those who wait patiently upon it in faith. The perspicacity of Scripture is not immediate, perhaps, but it is in the end real.
But then there are some objections to raise, or rather, not objections, merely questions.
First, on a minor note, although I liked his point about recognizing that there can be concord--unity of will--amidst diversity of opinion, so long as we share the same object of love, this leaves a large part of our question unsolved. After all, at some vague level, we share a “common object of love” with anyone who seeks truth, or wants to serve some kind of God. If the presence or absence of a common object of love determines whether we have a dispute within the Church or a dispute about the Church, as Webster so meaningfully put it, then how do we define this common object of love? I talked to him about the problem afterward, and he recognized that this object “had to have some shape to it”--a creed, for instance. But then, how do we know that we are merely united in will and that we are not confessing the same words with very different concepts or intentions? The problem is not so easily resolved. This is not a fault with Webster’s presentation, merely a call for further elaboration.
But there is a much more significant objection, one that I knew Leithart was going to raise, so I asked it for him and beat him to it: while it may be true that God is peace, and that Christ’s redemptive work is a work of peace, how do we maintain this while simultaneously doing justice to the fact that this is not exactly how Scripture often speaks. The Old Testament is full of war, and Yahweh is described as a warrior; even in the New Testament, Christ says that he comes not to bring peace, but a sword, and Revelation pictures him as a conquering warrior destroying his foes. Or, to put this problem as Webster preferred to put it--how do we reconcile the immanent reality of peace with the economy that is dominated by drama and conflict? Leithart pursued the same point further with Webster after the formal Q&A session, and the three of us discussed it on the way over to lunch. In some ways, this is merely a methodological question, but it seems to make a lot of difference to our paradigm. After all, if conflict is integral to the economy of redemption, then perhaps we should embrace it with more gusto than Webster would seem to advocate, perhaps seeking peace with the serpent, as Adam did in Genesis 3 (Leithart’s example) is a failure, and seeking conflict is a truer imitation of the divine character.
Webster acknowledged that it was a thorny problem, and did not want to minimize the fact that, whatever may be the case on the immanent plane, on the level of the economy, peace is only reached through a great deal of “drama and conflict.” However, he wanted to insist that the crucial point is that peace is the starting point, and peace the endpoint, and conflict is an aberration, it is not eternal, it is not integral. It all comes down, he said, to whether you accept a privative account of evil, or not. On a phenomenal level, such an account is deeply unsatisfactory, because it seems to deny the reality of the evil we encounter, but ultimately, he didn’t see how you could do without it; otherwise you end in Manichaeanism. And he didn’t want to risk going there.
I am quite sympathetic to this outlook, and it does seem that you have to maintain a privative account of evil, but it also seems to me that you have to be careful about not letting that affirmation loom too large in your theology, or else you end up minimizing large sections of Scripture. I suggested that perhaps this was just one of those many paradoxes that we have to live with in theology, affirming both seemingly opposing truths--God is peace, God is a warrior--without ever satisfactorily synthesizing them. I think both Webster and Leithart were, at some level, satisfied with this way of putting it
Yet, a real difference of theological method persists. For Webster, we must begin with the immanent and let that condition our interpretation of the economic; we must begin with an account of who God is in Godself, and then use this as an interpretive grid for making sense of what Scripture says that God does. A cynic would say that this means we begin with philosophy and let this set the parameters of Scripture. Webster stated his determination to avoid that error, but nevertheless insisted on what he called “a very dangerous, but a very important principle”: the proportions of dogmatics do not have to match the proportions of the economy. Scripture may tell us very very little about who God is in Godself, but dogmatics needs to talk about it quite a great deal. As he charmingly put it: “Your conclusion will in the end be that of Job--‘God is great, and we know him not.’ But you still have to spend a few hundred pages saying ‘God is great, and we know him not.’” Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to deny any of that, and I don’t think Leithart would either. But Leithart, I know, would be a lot more comfortable starting from the economy, learning that Yahweh is a warrior, that we are called to imitate him in that, and only then seeking to establish the senses in which God is peace, and we are to imitate him in that (of course, it is also possible that one could take Leithart’s method of starting with the economy, but still argue that in the economy, God reveals himself as peace much more than he does as warrior).
In any case, some of the crucial lessons of Webster’s lecture would remain--conflict is not the starting point or the endpoint, peace is. Conflict is not therefore irresolvable, it is not to be sought for its own sake, and it must only be engaged in with patient faith that God is a God of reconciliation.