Reading Radner: Part 1
  • Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cæli enarrant

Of all the delights in the day-to-day work of the Living Church Foundation, the greatest may be the opportunity we have to encourage and give voice to young leaders in the Church, and to be challenged and refreshed by them in turn. God is faithful, and while the laborers sent into the harvest are patently few, we must be grateful for those who turn up, all the more when they are bright eyed and bushy tailed. Perhaps 50 percent of the material published in The Living Church so far this year has come from folks 45 and younger. And many of these are associated in some way with TLC’s weblog, Covenant, which is set to assume a reinvigorated editorial calendar from August 15: stay tuned.

Several weeks ago, a dozen or so members of Covenant met at St. Paul’s parish in La Porte, Indiana, to enjoy three days of refreshment, structured by the study of Ephraim Radner’s difficult and sprawling  Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Baylor, 2012). Besides being one of the great theologians of our time, Radner, an Episcopal priest, is a friend and mentor of many of us, which made our study more rewarding (we are also blessed by his service on the Living Church Foundation). TLC published an excerpt from the book in the Oct. 7, 2012, issue, and we will have more to say in future. Meanwhile, our friends who gathered in Indiana will post brief reflections, keyed to the practical payoff of our time together for their ministries (have a look at So I thought I’d do the same in an introductory mode, ordered less to analysis than to exegesis of Radner. What are some of his key, interesting claims?

1. God stands at the center of the Church’s unity and division, in the form of Christ. This is the “miracle” of God’s creative and redemptive vulnerability, his “expended love” in time (pp. 11, 14, 16). To understand this is to begin to see the divisions of the Church theologically (p. 6), and thereby to apprehend our own “historical form” (p. 17). The method here is one of realism, fed by Scripture as “the primary language and meaning of the Church” (pp. 17, 22, 37, 39).

2. Christians must tend to their past histories in concrete ways, including the violence committed on explicitly Christian grounds (pp. 21, 40). Avowedly religious violence — “killing people for God’s sake” — is blasphemy, and is especially inescapable when Christians kill Christians, as in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) or the sack of Magdeburg (1631), for instance (pp. 22, 41, 45; cf. 47-48, 63). Having faced this common past, we should view the rise of the liberal state in the modern era as the result of Christians seeking to constrain their own internal weaknesses, temptations, and sins (p. 49). In such a context, decentralized pluralism, diversity, and debate may flourish and be protected by the state (p. 50; cf. p. 112). Call this a chastened Whig view of history: that Christians withdrew from a bid for univocal political power “for the sake of a more clearly recognized gospel” (p. 52). At the same time, the Church rightly remains responsible “to form individuals capable of ordering” the state and holding it accountable, a theme to which Radner will recur (p. 53; cf. pp. 54-55).

3. Turning to more contemporary instances of the murderousness of Christian division — National Socialism in Germany and tribal hostilities in Rwanda in the 1990s — Radner presses determinedly on the “creative symbiosis of religious division and violence.” The root problem is “ecclesially fragmented Christianity’s inherent dynamic of rivalry” (p. 68), which dynamic turns bloody as churches embrace “corrupting political alliances,” fed by “the passions of self-promotion, protection, and interest” (p. 71).

4. Whence these divisions in the first place? Radner distinguishes the heresy/schism couplet (basically synonymous in the New Testament) from difference/diversity or “distinction.” True Christian unity in love (charity) will not erase the latter, even as it strives to negotiate it faithfully. But this means that unity is paradoxical: at once a moral imperative and, “at least at times, a moral danger” (p. 88). This may be seen originally in the strand of the Christian heresiological tradition that unhappily took Judaism as “the model of a divided religion” — heresy in its purest form — which error not only fed a long history of persecution of Jews by Christians but also established “a kind of primordial conflictive standard” in the heart of the Church (p. 80). When, in the 12th century, Christian heretics became identified with Jews and Muslims, division set up shop within the Church, as it were, as a putative requisite of true religion, according to which not all would-be Christians could be trusted (pp. 83-84; cf. pp. 100-01). This anticipated what Radner calls the “novelty” of the 16th century, with its “many Christianities, many violences, many disorderings of responsibility and dissolutions of restraint” (p. 87). And yet all sides maintained that division did not harm the unity of the Church but precisely protected it, leaving “the whole unscathed” (p. 86).

5. With such a sullied history in view, Radner attempts to describe the unity and holiness of the Church systematically, in revisionist, if still traditional, terms. Unhappy with classically Catholic (“providentially coercive”) and Protestant (“individually elective”) solutions, Radner replaces both of these within their original Augustinian context of “historical passage” (p. 130). That is, Radner finds in the bishop of Hippo a fruitful suggestion that the unity of the Church may not be achieved historically “until the last day,” thus making space for “a temporal porousness about the Church, something that can sustain a certain amount of messiness and confusion in the ‘coming to be’ of perfection within the assaults of time.” This is Augustine’s famous corpus mixtum doctrine: that the Church rightly “endures” her erring members, thereby growing in charity and faith itself (p. 129).

Applying this teaching to the body of the Church in time, composed entirely of sinners, Radner concludes that the Church may be seen in history only in and through the form of Christ given over: “Behold the man!” (John 19:5) (p. 153; cf. p. 164). This seems consistent with Old Testament Israel, which is never morally differentiated from her members (p. 124). If Christ’s own body is Israel (see Isa. 42:1, Matt. 12:18-20, Gal. 6:16, Rev. 7:4), how shall we understand the integrity of Christ’s body (p. 125)? As historically divided, that is, “enacting disagreement with physical consequences” (p. 125).

6. Here is visibilist ecclesiology of a most rigorous sort, and if magisterial Roman Catholicism (and analogously Orthodoxy, labeled chauvinist at one point: p. 138) fares badly, it is on account of missteps, not because its basic terms are denied. Besides Augustine, Radner draws on Catholic interpretations of Luther, Rahner, and John Paul II, among others (pp. 132, 149, 154; cf. p. 147). More might have been made of ecumenical ecclesiology, even in the reshaping of Roman Catholic claims. Lumen Gentium’s body of Christ ecclesiology in a Pauline key (as explicated by, e.g., Johannes Willebrands and Joseph Ratzinger) set the stage not only for salvific ecclesial communities but also the imperfect unity and holiness of the Church (see, e.g., § 48), thence an account of the one Church as wounded (in the Catechism of 1994): images amenable to Radner’s own view and complicating of his account of Roman Catholicism.

Radner rightly sees his view as non-standard in its pressing of a figuralist identification of the sinful Church with Christ as a primary ecclesiological locus, fashioned to inspire repentance (pp. 159-65). And he knows that the argument will succeed to the extent that it persuades on traditionalist grounds — with recognizable tools and concepts, however newly employed or recast. “I believe in one, holy, catholic, apostolic church,” to be sure: “existing by the will and grace of him who gives himself to her in time; both as promise, as participant, as passion, as Paraclete” (p. 164).

Christopher Wells

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