Chapter 8: Event and the Church
From the very beginning of this discussion we have been dealing with the church, and I suspect that there is not a page in this book on which this word, or some other designating the same reality, does not appear. This is bound to be true in a discussion of Christ because, as we have seen, the new community is an essential aspect of the meaning of Christ. The church came into existence, not after the event, but along with the event, and is really inseparable from it at every stage, just as the event is inseparable from the church. In every reference we have made to the elements comprising the historical event through which the revelation occurred, the creation of the community has been included. The church is thus not so much the consequence of the event as its culmination.
But the church is also the continuation of the event. The church and the ancient Hebrew-Jewish community, with which it is continuous, together form the historic stream of which the event, in the stricter sense in which we have for the most part been using the term, is the center. It is thus only through the church that you and I have any contact with the event. Having begun our discussion of Christ in the realm of our religious experience, it is appropriate that we also conclude it there. We are doing just that when we now speak of the church, for whatever is distinctively Christian in our experience has come to us by that route. In so far as we know Christ, we know him in and through the life of the community.
Obvious as this is once it is seen, it is not always seen. Just as we sometimes fail to recognize how dependent we actually are upon the historical revelation, falsely supposing that our knowledge of God has been derived entirely or largely from nature and reason, so also often, having accepted the fact of revelation, we think of it as having been made directly to us as individuals and thus regard ourselves as being at every essential point independent of the community. The community, in fact, is, according to this view, more dependent upon the believers than the believers upon the community.
Those who take this position are likely to point either to the Spirit or to the New Testament as the medium through which the revelation has reached them, but in doing so they overlook the relation in which each of these stands to the church.
As for the New Testament, we have already discussed the Gospels as products of the church’s life, reports of the way Jesus was remembered, still known, and interpreted in the primitive Christian communities; the character of the epistles as reflecting the life and thought of the church is just as clear. The New Testament as a whole is the byproduct of the church’s experience -- not the creator of the church, but its creation, or, more accurately, God’s creation through the church. Thus, if the New Testament leads us to Christ, it does so by leading us into the church. Whether we know it or not, we do not enter the presence of Christ except along with others: if we do not approach him in the company of some contemporary Christian or group of Christians, then we do so in the company, and with the help, of Peter, Paul and John and the unnamed communities whose memories and faith are conveyed to us in the Gospels. In the second case, no less than in the first, we are dependent upon the church.
Nor can the Spirit be regarded as taking the place of the community as the agency or medium by which the historical revelation reaches the individual. For the Spirit is the principle of the church’s life and, though he exists and works outside, can be known nowhere else in just the way he is known there. On any level, one cannot know the "spirit" of a group without belonging to it: the "Holy Spirit," in the case of the church, fills the place of this "spirit" and becomes (as Theodore O. Wedel reminds us [The Coming Church [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1945.]) the community’s esprit de corps. There is no clear doctrine of the Spirit in the New Testament, although the reality of the Spirit is known in every part. Sometimes the Spirit seems to be identified with the living Christ: "The Lord is the "Spirit," writes Paul. The familiar fourteenth chapter of John also identifies the two when it represents Jesus as referring to his own return and to the coming of the Spirit as to one event. At other times the Spirit is alluded to less personally, but not less substantially (the Spirit in the New Testament is never "spirit" in our abstract or subjective sense), as the presence or power of God, which God is ready to "pour out" upon us or with which he may "fill" us. But however defined, the Spirit of Christ is known only in the community of Christ. Although one may feel the pull and power of the Spirit from outside, we can find him only within. If the Spirit draws us, he draws us into (or ever more deeply into) the community.
Only there can the revelation in Christ and the Revealer himself be found. This has always been true. In New Testament times individuals apart from the community of faith, may have had some knowledge of the man Jesus of Nazareth, but the Lord Jesus Christ could only be corporately known. Christ could, of course, be known in individual personal fellowship, but only when this knowledge was mediated by the fellowship of believers. We have already referred to Paul’s use of the phrase "in Christ" when he means "in the Christian community." The New Testament is not always talking about the church only because it takes the church so completely for granted -- just as we are likely to take the light for granted when we are asked to describe what we see around us.
The very words with which we find ourselves addressing or designating the God of our faith remind us of the social character of the medium of the revelation. We cannot call him by some proper name; he has no such name. We cannot identify him by referring to some formal characteristic like righteousness or love (for everything depends upon the particular concrete meaning of such a term: other "Gods" have been thought of as loving and righteous, not to mention omnipotence, omniscience, and the rest). What we actually do is to call him "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." In other words the only "name" of God we know contains also the name of another. We worship not a private God, but the God of Christ and therefore the God of those who belong to him. Is there any conceivable way in which that God can be known except in and through the historical community?
The church has been referred to as the culmination of the event, and now we are in position to see that this is true, not simply chronologically, but in a far more important sense. The teleological meaning of the event, its purpose, in so far as it is given us to see it, is to be found in the creation of the community. The most adequate and accurate single way of describing the saving meaning of the event (or the saving "work" of the person) is by saying that God through Christ brought into existence a new people -- a people in which he could be known, in precisely the way he is known there, as righteous love, as grace and truth, and could thus reconcile us to himself. Such reconciliation with the God who made us and made us for himself means also reconciliation within ourselves and between ourselves and others -- the overcoming of all hostilities within and without. This reconciliation is salvation, and it has all the worth which the New Testament and the classics of Christian devotion are constantly ascribing to it: life abundant, joy unspeakable and full of glory, peace that passes all understanding, confidence and hope like an anchor firmly fixed. But this reconciliation is found within the community and in the nature of the case can be found only there. For what is reconciliation but the restoration of community? And what is the Christian fellowship (in its true character) but community thus restored?
As to how or why it happened that the event we have been discussing culminated in this particular kind of community and had this particular reconciling effect, we shall do well not to seek too definite and sure an answer. Nothing organic can be explained: temporal occasions and sequences can be found, but not adequate causes. We know that when seed, soil and season meet, the plant will grow, but as to just why it does we do not know and shall never know. Even if we discover, as we well may, what are the conditions under which life emerges from inorganic matter, we shall have discovered only the when of life, not its how or why. History is not different: we see the close connection of event with event, but as to why a particular "cause" issues in a particular "effect" we do not know. Thus we know that the event upon whose unity and complexity we have been insisting throughout this discussion culminated in the formation of the community in which God makes himself known in a particular concrete way as both righteous and forgiving and through which the new life of the Spirit, the distinctive Christian life, is imparted. But this is all we know -- and all we need to know,
From the very beginning it was felt that the more exact location of this mystery of God’s action was the death and resurrection of Christ, which we have often identified as marking the decisive moment or phrase of the event. The early church used many metaphors to suggest this: Jesus in his death offered a sacrifice for our sins which we were not able or worthy to offer; he paid a debt we could not discharge; or took on himself a penalty we could not pay. Other "explanations" were more objective: Christ’s dying was the moment when he who had met and defeated Sin, now met Death and, as the resurrection showed, defeated that demonic enemy also, thus freeing us from bondage to guilt and fear and restoring us to our true (original) nature as children of God; or Christ’s death is the sign and, indeed, the actual realization, of that complete identification of Christ with us men, which was prerequisite to his being a true and effective Mediator; or his death is a mark and consequence of his perfect obedience, by which the disastrous train of "man’s first disobedience" was finally and forever broken.
None of these ways of seeking to express the meaning of the death of Christ can be taken as accurate in the same way we take a chemical formula or a mathematical equation or even a date in history to be accurate. (What has been said about both creeds and story will perhaps be remembered here.) But they remind us of the fact that the death of Christ was not only the vivid and poignant focus of the church’s memory of Jesus (as death is always likely to be in our memory of another), but also that it became almost at once the symbol of what was realized to be the crucial meaning of the event.
The reason for such a development is not far to seek. It is sin and death which confront faith in God with its severest (indeed, with its only severe) test. No "revelation" of God which does not show him dealing effectively with these enemies of man, these destroyers of the meaning of his life, can be a saving revelation. It was seen very early by the first witnesses of the event that its unique character consisted largely in the fact that this was precisely what God had been doing. It was not a matter of theory or even of faith, but of fact, that, as a result of what had occurred, forgiveness had been made available to them and a new life of the Spirit, in its quality immortal, had begun to flow around and through them. This was the very meaning of life in the Christian community. But just why had this happened? Manifestly a new victory over sin and death had been won on their behalf. But how?
The event being what it was, the explanation of the new fact could take only one form: Jesus had won this victory. He had been tempted in all points as we are, but had failed not. He had suffered death, yea death upon the cross, but he had loosed its bonds. The burden of the Christian message was not that Christ was sinless in some Godlike sense, but that he had conquered sin; not that he could not die, but that he had conquered death; not that our enemies had not touched him -- they had and had done their worst to him -- but that they could not master him. No wonder the death and resurrection, which stand at the center of the event, stand also at the center of the story! The death was an offense to the Jews, and the resurrection nonsense to the Greeks, but together they are the secret of the power of the gospel. The cross, a perfect symbol of the suffering and death of Christ and of the sin which inflicted them, is also the symbol of the love of God, which conquered both, freeing us from fear and reconciling us, making us one again, with himself, which is our true life.
But all of this is only a way -- even if, as I should say, the only possible way -- of conveying the meaning of the reconciliation actually found within the newly created fellowship. The one fact, essential and sure, was that the event which the first believers had witnessed, had culminated in the community, into which they had been incorporated, and that in this community a new life of the Spirit was to be found. However it might be explained, God was known there as holy love, moving to penitence and offering both pardon and a new righteousness, and becoming himself, as thus known, the ground of faith in the ultimate meaning of life and of hope of its fulfillment. The purpose of God in Christ was the bringing into existence of this community. The Christian life was -- and is -- life within this community of Christ.
I have just used the words, love, faith and hope, and these indicate, better than any other terms could, the essential characteristics of this life. It is not by accident that Paul writes, "And now abideth faith, hope, love -- these three." Together they possess a certain completeness and finality. One does not readily find a term which deserves to stand beside them or see a way in which any one of them can be dispensed with. The close relation between them can be expressed in many different ways. We may say that hope without faith is not really hope and that faith without hope is not really faith; that faith is the foundation of hope and that love is the ground of faith. Or reversing the direction, we may say that love, when it is fulfilled, includes faith, and that faith, when it is fully and truly itself, includes hope. Or perhaps it is truer still to say that love and faith, belonging indissolubly together, blossom inevitably into hope.
It is interesting to reflect upon why Paul places these terms in just the order in which they stand -- faith, hope, love. There are obvious rhetorical reasons for placing love in last place: The final clause, "the greatest of these is love," follows much more naturally and effectively upon "faith, hope, love" than it would, say, upon "love, faith, hope." One must not assume, however, that Paul has arranged the terms consistently in the order of increasing importance. He would certainly have regarded faith as more important than hope if he had been forced to make a distinction of that kind between two terms of such supreme significance and so intimately connected in his mind. We hope because we believe, he would have said; not, we believe because we hope. There is a kind of so-called hope which produces a kind of so-called faith; but such hope is mere wishfulness and such faith is mere credulity. Real hope always rests back upon faith; real faith never rests back upon hope.
But it is also true, I would urge, that real faith always involves hope as a corollary. To find an ultimate meaning in existence is also to look forward confidently to the ultimate fulfillment of existence. Faith is not dependent upon hope -- faith takes the first step -- but hope always follows closely after it, if indeed faith and hope do not walk together once that first step is taken. We hope only because we believe; but if we believe, we shall hope. Faith and hope are thus bound inseparably together, but faith comes first.
But faith and love are also bound inseparably together, and love comes first. Faith does not lead to love, but love to faith. We believe because we love -- or, better, because we are loved, for while faith and hope are primarily human attitudes or acts, love, as the New Testament uses the term, belongs preeminently to God. Love is the love of God -- not primarily our love of God (Nygren [A. Nygren. Agape and Eros, English translation by A. G. Hebert (London: S. P. C. K., 1932), Part I.] is surely right here), but God’s love of us. This love of God is revealed in Christ. Faith is our response to that love — our apprehension of its reality, our deep sense of the need of it, our act of trusting ourselves absolutely to it. Love comes before faith, because God’s action comes before our own. God’s love calls forth our faith. Faith then issues, as we have seen, in hope. We hope for the future fulfillment (although if we are wise we will not dare predict too precisely the form that fulfillment will take) because we already know in faith the love of God, who can do all things. In so far as we then express in our actions the same love towards others, it is not our love which we express; it is the love of God, received in faith, flowing through us. Love, before it is our vocation, is God’s nature; and before it is our act, it is God’s gift.
According to a familiar text, the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews begins: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The Revised Standard Version changes "substance" to "assurance" and "evidence" to "conviction," replacing the objective with subjective terms. And this is proper, because faith, as well as hope, is primarily subjective: it is based on ‘substance" and "evidence"; it is not itself substantial or evidential. But what cannot be said of faith and hope can be said of love: Love is the actual substance of things hoped for, the actual evidence of things not seen. Love, in the Christian sense, is the reality of God already present and operative in Christ. Thus faith, based on love, is not mere faith; and hope, based on love and faith, is not mere hope. We are confident that our hope will be fulfilled, because in the actual presence of the love of God, it is already being fulfilled. We possess even now the earnest, the advance installment, of our inheritance. "By faith we have access into this grace wherein we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. . . . And our hope will not disappoint us for the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, which has been given unto us (Rom. 5:1 ff.).
But all of this happens within the community: the love is revealed there; the Spirit is given there; the faith and hope are to be found there.
No contemporary theological question is so urgent as the question of the nature and function of the church. Is the church one among many human institutions committed to the achievement of certain socially approved ends, or is the church a divinely created community in which God makes himself known in a unique and supremely authentic way? Is the church a voluntary association of individuals, or is it a people God has chosen and ordained? Does the church have an objective salvation to offer, or only some helpful thoughts? Do the sacraments of the church stand for something ultimately real, or are they merely pious exercises, valuable only because of the psychological effect they have on those who practice them? These are obviously important theological questions, and for the men and women who are engaged actively in the work of the church they are particularly poignant personal questions.
We can answer them positively and confidently only when we see the necessary relation in which the church stands to the event in the first century to which we find ourselves tracing the origin of what is most precious in our own lives. If God did in fact make a unique and supreme revelation of himself in that event; if God was actually in Christ reconciling the world unto himself; if something of decisive importance for humanity really happened in connection with the life and death of Jesus, however different may be the theological terms in which we attempt to express that meaning -- if this is our faith, the church becomes immeasurably the most significant of human communities, for it was within its experience that the revealing event first occurred and it is in its experience that the meaning of that event has been conveyed from one generation to another. Baptism is seen as the celebration of one’s entrance upon membership in a community of transcendent significance, and participation in the Lord’s Supper as an act of actual communion with the living Christ, who is its center and head. The church is seen as the bearer, although an unworthy bearer, of a unique and indispensable revelation; as the medium, although an imperfect medium, of a spiritual life for lack of which men and nations are dying.
For upon the event, as the Christian is bound to see things, depends nothing less than the meaning of human history. It is not easy to believe in the meaning of history, although even a generation ago we thought it was. We then talked about the inevitability of progress by natural evolution and were quite sure the perfect world order was soon to come. But not only has that optimistic mood disappeared under the pressure of events, but also we recognize that even then the facts did not justify it. We have come to a realization of the depth and recalcitrance of moral evil in ourselves and in all men, to a recognition of the limitations implicit in our finitude, to an understanding of the realities of man’s political, economic and social life, which make any easy optimism impossible. In the light of that experience, we have read history again, noting the rise and fall of nations and cultures in cycles which in the perspective seem as short and are apparently as final and futile as the life-span of a man, evil manifesting itself continually in the same hideous forms, good winning its victories but also suffering its defeats, as century follows century and our tiny planet is hurled on its precarious way among the stars. And what does it all come to? What ground do these facts provide us for faith and hope?. . .
But if God did in fact choose to reveal himself in history, as Christian faith affirms, that act becomes the sign and guarantee of a purpose of God in history, a purpose to which all of nature is subordinate. History ceases to be formless and void; it takes on character and order. It is seen to have a center, and by that same token we know it will have an end -- not a merely fortuitous end, as by an accident to our planet or a burning out of the sun, but a true end, a decisive end, because God’s purpose in and through it will have been fulfilled.
That purpose is the "bringing of many sons to glory"; the creation in fact of the family of God, from whom every family in heaven and earth is named; the coming to pass, whether in heaven or on earth or in some new heaven and earth, of the kingdom of his love. The full meaning of that purpose we cannot know: only "an earnest of our inheritance" has been given us, and "eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man what God has prepared." But because that purpose exists, and only because it exists, do history and our own lives have meaning. The decisive ground of our faith that it exists is the historical revelation, which began with the calling of Israel and culminated in the great event -- the life and death and rising again of Jesus and the coming into being of the community of Christ the Lord.