Well, I must say that I didn’t expect my post to find the audience it did, for which I am certainly grateful. RealClearReligion, TitusOneNine, First Things’s First Thoughts, and Cranach all linked to it. Gene Veith, writer of the last named, in the context of his post, mentioned the Mockingbird blog, which reminded me of one name I had intended but failed to discuss: Paul F. M. Zahl.
Zahl is a retired rector of The Episcopal Church and the author of such winsome books as Grace in Practice, Five Women of the Reformation, The Protestant Face of Anglicanism, and A Short Systematic Theology. He was also dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, probably the premier seminary for evangelical Anglicans in America. He is also the father of David Zahl, the editor in chief of the Mockingbird blog.
Paul Zahl’s full-throated advocacy for the simul justus et peculator construal of the Christian’s status before God, and relentless and unapologetic apology for unbounded grace in both our life before God and with our neighbor has elicited accusations of virtual antinomianism—a charge often hurled at Lutherans.
I must say I have been quite taken over the years by Zahl’s vigorous assault on all manner of magical thinking in the Christian life—objectifications of the divine that promise more than they can deliver. And while he can certainly sound Lutheran in his strict separation of law and gospel, his beliefs about the church and the sacraments can only leave a confessional Lutheran (even a not-so-confessional Lutheran) flabbergasted. While Anglicans certainly have their low-church wing, if Zahl were any lower, he’d be preaching in China.
Before you can do justice to Zahl’s “no ecclesiology is an ecclesiology,” however, you have to understand how important the practical, the everyday, theology as lived, is to him.
From Grace in Practice:
Ecclesiology is unimportant for two reasons. The first reason is positive. The other themes of Christianity are infinitely more important than the “church idea.” No one has ever awakened in the middle of the night anxious about ecclesiology per se. You may wake up worried about your child or upset about someone said to you during the day. But you never wake up worried about the church. . . . Ecclesiology is therefore unimportant because other things are more important, such as the saving inherent in the Christian drama and the poignancy of life in relation to loss.
Ecclesiology is also unimportant for a negative reason. Ecclesiology is an actual ill! By definition it places the human church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free, from original sin and total depravity from the rest of the world., but the facts prove otherwise. . . .
To say we have no ecclesiology is not just a negation. To have no ecclesiology is to have an ecclesiology. What sort of ecclesiology is this? It is a noble one. It puts first things first. It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. . . .
. . . The problem with the church as institution, humanly and historically understood, is that it almost always seeks to confine and control the word from the cross, which is the word of grace and one-way love. The human church cannot help itself. . . . The church, being in no sector free from original sin, clings closely to sin and exercises will. This is the will to law, which becomes the will to power. In almost every moment of historical time, the church has come down on grace. It has been fearful of it, competitive with it, and hostile to it. Church is typically the enemy of grace. . . .
While the conflict between a systematic theology of applied grace, on the one hand, and the notion of a settled ecclesiology, on the other, results in a radical negation of the church idea, this should not scandalize us. It is the essence of Protestant believe in demystifying and deconstructing the human church. This book is only a contemporary expression of an enduring if intermittent plea within the history of Christianity: grace trumps church every time.
Needless to say, in Zahl’s deconstruction enterprise, sacraments cannot be part of the “saving work of Christ,” vehicles of grace, and church discipline is only the church, once again, stifling grace. Whatever Jesus meant by “my church” in Matthew 16:18, Zahl has reduced to a merely human institution with every human flaw.
Because the church as Christ’s body cannot mean for Zahl what it has meant for many Christians throughout history (an understanding he calls a misunderstanding, à la Emil Brunner), Zahl also construes Christ’s real presence as a real absence. Christ, like Joltin’ Joe, has left and gone away. He is not present in the Eucharist. He is not present in the keys to bind and loose given to the church. He is not present in the preached Word. So where is he?
“The presence of Christ’s absence is found within the works of love.”
Al Kimel, a former Episcopalian, a former RomanCatholic, presently Eastern Orthodox, wrote about Zahl’s theology several years ago. Kimel admitted to something of a Lutheran phase, as well as Zahl’s influence on his thinking, at least for a while. In 2005, Kimel, then a Catholic, revisited Zahl’s Short Systematic Theology and approached it as a Lutheran might.
God may have become flesh in Jesus Christ two thousand years ago, but where is he now? He is “present in his absence,” Dr. Zahl tells us. Now there are perfectly orthodox ways to construe this assertion. Clearly Jesus is not present among us in the same way that he was bodily present to his disciples two thousand years ago. Clearly his ascension does bring us an experience of absence, despite our Lord’s promise to be present with us to the end of the age. If we have a Lutheran inclination, we might want to interpret Christ’s absence through a theology of the cross. “He deserves to be called a theologian,” Martin Luther tells us in his Heidelberg Disputation, “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” For Luther the hiddenness of God is grounded, not in the deity’s metaphysical difference from his creation, but in the creator’s free decision to hide himself in the world he has made—and most particularly in those events and objects that sinners find most humiliating and inglorious. God confronts sinners in their pride and self-righteousness by revealing himself in weakness and suffering, in those things that are opposite to himself (sub contrario).
But Zahl takes Luther’s theology of the cross in a direction that Luther would have repudiated and indeed did repudiate. Zahl rejects the objectification of the risen Christ in the life of the Church. He rejects the essential sacramentality of the gospel and insists that since his ascension Christ is only known in his “non-tangible presence.”
While human beings stand alone in terms of the divine accompaniment of the absent risen Christ, they are surrounded at the same time by the magnificent intangibility of the risen Christ. Because he is nowhere in particular, he is everywhere in general. To quote the Prayer Book collect, “we are forever walking in His gift.” Moreover, the generality of his presence is not a reversion to the phenomenon that “all cats are grey in the dark.” For he is present in the compassionate love of human beings, which mirrors his love for us when he was on earth. His abstraction always becomes concrete in the particular love that is grace. (p. 39)
We also understand Jesus to have existed in continuity with the risen Christ. But he is no longer present in the tangible world. He is present neither in sacrament, nor in the words of the Bible, nor in the visual image, nor within his present potential presence arising from the future hope. He is present, rather and only, in the works of love, in the fruit from the belovedness that the gospel story engenders when it grasps us. (p. 49)
All Christians will agree with Dean Zahl that the risen Christ is powerfully present in the event of sacrificial love; but I am almost tempted to say, so what? How does that touch my life? How do I enter into that love? How do I unite myself to my Savior? How am I filled with the Spirit? It is true that every actualization of love, every victory of good over evil, every triumph over injustice and wickedness is a manifestation of the risen Christ. But as Luther might ask, Where is Christ for me?
I’m sure Zahl has an answer, although how consonant it is with confessional Protestant thought, whether of the Canterbury, Geneva, or Wittenberg variety, is another thing. Keep in mind also that one of the influences on his Short Systematic was Ernst Käsemann, a signal force in the “Second Quest” search for the “historical Jesus,” a bankrupt enterprise that has succeeded in uncovering precious little about Jesus but a lot about how bored scholars manage to organize so many conferences.
In short, Zahl’s body of work is certainly no bridge between Wittenberg and Canterbury (and, it should be stated, never claimed to be), offering mostly a long laundry list of what the historic church has gotten wrong. Such an approach doesn’t provide much of a foundation for a unified, orthodox “classical” Anglican—it’s simply too eccentric. It’s Zahlism more than Anglicanism.
Nevertheless, Zahl is a sharp writer who offers much ammunition against contemporary theologies of glory and continues to shed light on the culture’s self-justifying and self-righteous pathologies—no small things.
Takeaway from Grace in Practice:
A theology of everyday life depends on the un-free will. If the will is free, then we do not need someone to save us. We may need a helper, but we do not need a savior. . . .
. . . Often when the subject of the un-free will comes up, people jump ahead of my claim. They think I am talking about predestination. They think I mean Pavlov and little dogs with bells and shocks. They think I am trying to corner them into some kind of idea that makes people in to puppets. To this I say, “You’re ahead of the game. I am talking about one thing, and one thing only: how people actually act and whether they are under compulsion in certain situations. Please don’t talk to me about puppets until you have answered me about addicts.”
. . . Human beings are not as free to act as they like to think they are. They are more hemmed in, more constrained by outward circumstance and forces within, than they wish to concede. We all want to do what we want to do. The fact is, we often do what we do not want to do, and do not do what we want to do. I am not the first person to have said this.
That the human will is born un-free is one of the plainest facts of the human world. It is also the most hidden. It is plain because it is plain from experience. It is hidden, in plain sight, because no one wishes to see it. . . .
This can sound to some as if it were an attack on human dignity. It is not an attack. Rather, it is the birth pangs of compassion.
Now that’ll preach. Even among Lutherans.