John Flett - "Apostolicity"
1:49AM Jun 29, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our delight to be speaking with the Reverend Dr. John G Flett, associate professor of intercultural theology and theology at pilgrim theological College in Australia. Professor Flett researches on a wide range of subjects including World Mission ecumenical theology, the trinity of pasta Felicity, Carl Bart's ecclesiology intercultural hermeneutics, Leslie new begin and migrants Christianity. Professor Flett is the author of several books, including the witness of God, the Trinity missio de Carl Bart and the nature of Christian community available in 2010, and the book that we'll be discussing today, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective, out this year in 2016. Professor Flett, thank you for joining us today.
Thank you very much for having me.
In your text, which I understand was a ability, it's your own shift or what we in the English speaking world might consider a second doctoral dissertation. You survey a wealth of 20th century theological sources on the question of a pasta olicity. How, what are some of the ways that the 20th century literature shapes our understanding of a particular city today?
Perhaps the best way into the question is to start with a problem, I think, and the problem is a positive one. In other words, we have world Christianity. So in 2002, Philip Jenkins published this book called The next Christendom. It looked
well made popular really a lot of things that had been studied within mission studies for the past 4050 years. So it sort of entered what the wider theological imagination, so we have this development of world Christianity. But on the other hand, we have the sort of formal ecumenical discussion Have a pasta Felicity. Now pasta Felicity is a thorny ecumenical question. And on the surface it has to do with church order, and specifically the issue of the Episcopal Office of Bishops. What do we do with the Ministry of oversight? Now? Those two things may seem unrelated. The fact is, when you start talking about bishops, you you start having other theological concerns. So the historical continuity of faith, how does the faith remain the same through time? You have a link between the local and the universal church with bishops, the celebration of the Eucharist, maturity in the faith becomes linked to practices liturgy. So the question of Bishops is a fairly significant one, potentially theologically, all the way down the line. So we see it most especially at the question of whether we can have visible unity that is unity between institutions, particularly in the sharing of communion or the Eucharist with one another. So in terms of the way it's played itself out in the Ecumenical Movement, especially of the later later part of the 20th century, it's looking at that issue of oversight, and what can you do with it? So they start to see language of a pesky pay rather than Episcopal. So trying to you know, make sure that it goes back to its original linguistic roots. So by the time of 1982, we get Baptist Eucharist and ministry. And that makes advanced by creating a distinction between the epistemic tradition and the apostolic succession. So epistemic succession is the idea that you Lay on Hands, one Bishop laid on hands and next Bishop all the way and there's a big long chain through history, which basically talks about how we're, we've remained faithful to our roots by talking about the Apostolic tradition, Lima started to point towards practices. So a range of different practices that we all celebrate together that actually are part of the epistemic continuity of the faith. Now, this was an advance in the sense that you could get agreement from the non Episcopal churches. So the reformed Baptist, Presbyterian Methodists, but you'd also get some sort of agreement with the sort of high Lutherans and also the Anglicans. The great payoff is that it started to talk about the church as a community. And the community is something that's brought out by the Gospels, we have to be a people of the gospel and the witness of the faith that witness of this community is brought together by these practices by this tradition, and then we mature in the faith and that maturity together leads to Christian witness. Now, the by which we get back to the issue of order is to say, well out of the gospel has come. oversight. You need to have leadership that's in line with the gospel, and leadership that also advances the gospel. So then we get, you know, in a funny way back to the question of Bishops and leadership, but the key elements, the key element, I would want to argue through all of this. The reason that you can have many different people can agree is that they started talking about the church's continuous through history, by virtue of it being a culture. So if the church is continuous by virtue of being a culture, it raises a number of issues. One has to do with a sort of lineal historical progression of the church. So you tend to see this discussion that goes from Jerusalem to Rome, to the northern tribes, Germany, to the UK to the USA, and then all of a sudden we get diverse world Christianity that's come from You know, Western missionaries going around the world. The problem with that history is that it's false. It's just not a true account of the Christian faith, but it serves a very strong theological purpose. The second element, of course, is that if you do understand the church as a culture, what happens when you take their church across cultures?
So in other words, if we have this body that looks, you know, it's built up through a Western historical framework, and then you take it somewhere else. Well, it looks wisdom. So what does conversion mean? Then? Does that mean conversion into this culture, if it's to be historically continuous in that way, so there's a number of so you can see the benefit economically of understanding the church as a culture, but then you run into the problem of world Christianity, I'd like to suggest that actually challenges that way of reading the church at a very fundamental level.
Very good. Professor Flett, I understand from your text that it's really Robert Jensen, who emphasizes this aspect of the church as a culture, this theory of the church as a culture. Can you get us into his mindset a little bit? Why would one conclude that is one, at the same time is affirming this statement also affirming that perhaps there is no doctrinal definition that's possible for the church?
Well, I don't know if he would say that. So the reason that Jensen comes up is because Jensen is very good on the ecumenical material. And he will say that he doesn't think actually in terms of doctrine, there's too much that divides us. He actually has a very good book that talks about the unbaptized God and the way in which we've essentially used Greek metaphysics in a very poor way. And that has caused a number of problems with us for us. Especially in terms of our understanding of history. So in his sort of can be quite dense discussion of history, he wants to talk about specifically the Holy Spirit, but the way in which the Holy Spirit. So this can be a little bit technical, the way in which the present historical nature of the church, its movement through history, anticipates its own end. So he talks about decisions that have been made, that actually anticipate the form the eschatological form that church is going to take. So
can't be undone, essentially. So he talks about the contingency of the church, the way in which the church is contingent through history, and he sees this as a is a proper way of thinking about the doctrine of God. So it's related to his sense of divine ontology The thing is he gets he becomes quite specific, that the church is a culture when he's overtaken the church is a culture. And it's got to do with how he understands witness how he understands transmission through time. He really does not like the idea that the church translates anything. So translation becomes a bit of an issue, as opposed to someone like lemon Sunday of course, we may get to for translation for him. Translation is the nature of historical continuity. Now, the reason Jensen, and it's a fairly dense chapter on Jensen, but the reason DNS is interesting is because he form makes overt what I think's implicit within the ecumenical discussion. And that's the link between traditional orthodox views on epistemic succession, and the way this forms the church as a culture. Now, the issue then for me becomes well if the church is a culture, what does the nature of missionary transmission look like? But it looks like the replanting of a culture now that used to be described as colonization. So now we have a missionary method, which has been repudiated as colonization, which is actually basic to the ecumenical discussion about the Apostolic nature of the church. Now, that all sounds fairly radical, I agree. But, you know, that's the argument that I'm holding.
Professor flat in your book, a pasta list at the ecumenical question in world Christian perspective, you survey in detail both Western and non Western theologians on the doctrine of ecclesiology. When we turn to the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America is there is there a particular ecclesiology that we find is predominant.
One of the ways in which world Christianity is being studied is through the lens of history. So historiography becomes important and when we use the language Which of ecclesiology people tend to think first about doctrine.
you're not necessarily going to get those two things to marry in the way that we might like. So what we end up finding in the study of world Christianity is that the historians would prefer to talk about Christian history, and not church history. Because they're looking at the movement of Christianity. If you look at the movement of an institution, then you look at a different type of thing. And one of the complaints they have is that looking at the institution ends up stressing such things like the missionaries from the west arriving in Africa and bringing Christianity with it. So Africa or Asia, seem to be what are seen as derivative of Western Christianity. So what we're going to look at is more in terms of reception. How Have Africa and Asia appropriated the gospel at different times different places prior to the influence of Western Christianity. So how does that actually occur? Now
what that means is you start looking at diverse forms.
So things that we might not necessarily recognize as Christianity. Kwame Bianco has an excellent example, where he talks about the problem of bigamy. And he looks at the Presbyterian Church of Ghana. And he argues that the Presbyterian Church of Ghana was its book of order has been very poor. And dealing with the issue of begging me. And the reason it's being poor is because we have a set of roles that are sort of brought in that people don't really own. So because they don't really own it, they haven't really worked their way through it. They haven't really lived the gospel become appropriated in that local context. So it's sort of remains on the surface a little now, he competes With this thing called the Mysamma disco Gospel Church, which is an African independent church, and it proof texts, he says he says they have a whole heap of a range of different problems. But they're treating it treating bigamy as an African issue. And thinking theologically through that. So you have a nice on one hand, the The point is you have a nice orthodox rule given ordered church, it's not really able to deal with the issue too well, and then you sort of have this more chaotic, free spirited, perhaps we wouldn't do the same thing type of church, but they're actually dealing with the issue in a much more profound and long lasting way. So it becomes a question of the superficial reality of the faith. The way in which we're to give another example you'll have you'll have people that talk about how the liturgy or the theology, the idioms, the questions that have come into Africa are really important. So it's not theology asking local questions, it's the importation of a range of different questions, which then leads to a immaturity of the faith. So it doesn't really go bone deep, sort of stays at the facade of, you know, make sure you wear jackets type of thing, or play organs or have brick buildings. So, you'll, you'll hear about the ability to go to church on Sunday morning, but then go to a witch doctor on Sunday evening, because the type of questions that are being asked answered by the witch doctor just aren't being addressed at all. So whether we believe in demons or spirits or not, we can sort of pretend that for Africa, these This isn't a reality. So the question then becomes precisely the question of a possibility because it's got to do with maturity in the faith. It's got to do with continuity of the faith. And there's no point simply importing something if it's not going to lead to Christian maturity. And if it is going to lead to this sort of bifurcation of, you know, cultural backgrounds and doctrinal overlay. You're not really manifesting the kingdom in the way that I think the language of the body of Christ really promotes.
Professor flat llaman Sana once wrote, quote, I wonder what the study of church history would look like if it had a global perspective, if it viewed world Christianity, not with a sense of decline and uncertainty, but with a sense of expansion and promise, indeed, might not the entire structure of theological education change if it began to respond to the realities of world Christianity? How does the emergence of world Christianity reshape our understanding of a pasta Felicity?
So if we start with the problem, which I think is the problem that pasta necessity, we solve our medical problems by talking about a pasta the church continues through time as a culture the emergence of worship Christianity is simply a no, that just doesn't work that way. So one of the difficulties we have, of course, is that you don't see the language of Apostasy emerge within the literature dealing with World Christianity. So it's not a term that they use. However, I was reading Andrew Walz one day and Andrew walls talked about the continuity of the faith. So he didn't use the language of a pasta olicity but he talked about historical continuity. So historical continuity becomes a big issue. And what he said was the church is only continuous as it goes across cultural barriers. If it doesn't go across cultural barriers, he argues if it remains where it is sort of enclosed within its own historical narrative, it withers fades and dies. So it's only as the faith goes across culture, becomes embodied in a different culture takes on different shapes and forms. It actually grows and expands. If it doesn't do that, if it sort of becomes petrified, then it withers and dies. Now that is a description of the historical continuity of the faith. So it's a description of a pasta elicitor, even if they're not using that type of language. So what you find with Sunday with walls with video and the like, when they start talking about the historical continuity of the faith, they are talking about what we doctrinally might also describe as the past eliciting. Now instead of saying that the church is then continuous as a single culture, as saying the church continuous only as it actually culturally changes as it goes across cultures. Now that's going to give us very, very different definitions of order of Liturgy of intercultural and inter religious relationship. So, Andrew I'll land on Sunday we'll start talking about even in biblical translation, the only language that you will have to the divine as the local, indigenous religious language. So the name for God is always the sort of one that gets used within the biblical text. So we're actually not talking about two separate religions. Here, we're actually talking about the way in which Christianity ends up becoming interpreted through different religious lenses precisely in the appropriation of the faith. So things like syncretism, which tended to be a very thorny issue actually take on a different type of
different type of definition.
But it means then we're rethinking what order looks like what continuity looks like, what liturgy looks like, what its musical relationship looks like. What role does doctrine have? How do we think about doctrine in relation to what we do and don't do? So? It's actually a fairly simple vacant and radical challenge that's laid down. The one of the ways in which the desire for a particular city is expressed is for the visible continuity of the church. So the visibility of the church becomes a major effect of the church is a visible society. It's not simply an idea. The difficulty with me with that language is that it pertains particularly to certain denominations or certain traditions. So, Anglican Catholic will talk about visible continuity. The thing is the most visible Christianity running around today is world Christianity, in its many, many diverse forms. So if you're going to talk about visible Christianity, you need to talk about actually what is visible as Christianity. So it's a question of bringing all of that type of diversity into into and inform the sort of theological, very, very important theological location. We have
excellent. What new opportunities? Does the advent of world Christianity open up for ecumenical progress today?
So, depends what we mean by progress doesn't really
the language of diversity is a very interesting diversity is very interesting term. If you look at the communicative documentation, everyone will affirm diversity. But then they'll set it into certain limits. So the cognate of diversity becomes division. Too much diversity equals division. And this is set over against unity. So then you get this funny argument between unity and diversity. So diversity is needed, but it has to be under the structure of unity. I think the way in which it's been posited is actually a bit of a challenge to us. Because the Unity immediately goes to things like bishops goes to things like structure, it goes to things like tradition, which is defined in a very particular way and work Christianity in many occasions, just don't. It just doesn't correlate. It doesn't it doesn't stand up to that type of testing. So, one of the opportunities, I think that it really does open up is the development of theological method. So what how do we start to think theologically about the range of diversity issues that are, you know, confronting us today? Now, this is true in a number of different ways. The sexuality debates, for example, within the West, hc the political debates that we're seeing breaking out in the American election at the moment there, it's all got all got to do with diversity. How do we deal with diversity? What's the theologically responsible position to hold on all those Those types of questions. And I think, needing to deal with World Christianity in its diversity. In other words, it's not a diversity that we could submerge. We have no control over, we have no power over this. This is developing, whether you want it or not, it's all over the show.
So it's not something that we can try and keep under our hats.
So it's forcing us into a discussion that I think we've been reticent to hear for quite a long time. And we are finding a lot of the fears, I think, you know, the world's going to end type of theological fears just aren't panning out. And so you're seeing a lot more I think, joy, love, peace, patience, the fruit of the Spirit that comes out of these types of discussion, even though there are a lot of people that are very fearful. I mean, we're in you know, remain fearful. I think this gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore the fullness of the faith.
Thank you so much for that and Professor flat if I can ask you, what would it mean then for us to speak about a pasta listening How do you define the pasta olicity given this tremendous literature survey?
So I would start not with bishops, I would start not with the institution of the church, I'd start with Christology. So in other words, if we start so I've got a big section on the New Testament in the language of possibility within the New Testament, how that sort of built its way out, and you find that it has a very, very strong christological ground. It's first an understanding of Jesus's own history. But then an understanding of how we participate in Jesus's own history. Which is to say, the resurrection breaks open our histories. So if we understand our histories as sort of a closed narrative, they get broken open, and we are called in to participate in this much larger history, this history that breaks open all these different histories, so that we actually need to then receive instruction but also participate in something more wider. So it's an abstract way of saying that the continuity of the faith occurs precisely as you're going across cultural boundaries, and the uprooting the appropriation of the faith. So what we're doing is we're translating, embodying being converted to Jesus. So Andrew walls will will create it will have a distinction between proselytism and conversion. And he talks about proselytism as the taking on of a narrative. So essentially he'll talk he'll talk about the New Testament and talk about the problem with the the circumcision debates is that it was about this is the form of the faith. This is how the face looks. You need to look this way. This is all the interpretive questions are there. And he said, under this, you don't really need to ask any questions. And you don't need to ask any questions because there's a cannon of answers that are already there. The problem is that's not what you find in the New Testament, you find this model called conversion. So you get these funny questions that that arise Should we eat meat offered to idols?
So that's a, that's not a question
the Jewish people are going to ask, because they can't offer meat to idols. So this is a pagan question. This is a this is a pet question that's come out in the pagan context. And Paul's answers instructive, I don't really know that he's got no answer. He's not going to come up with a doctrinal answer. He's going to turn around and sort of say, Well, the answer is love. Don't like you know, don't cause your weaker brother and sister to fall. So, here we have conversion, not proselytism. conversion is turning What's there to Christ, according to walls. So it's the conversion of a whole people conversion of a culture conversion of a narrative to Christ. So it's not Receiving of an external cultural form. It's actually converting the entire narrative of what you are a part towards Jesus Christ. Now that is the history of Jesus Christ working through us, that's the embodiment of Jesus Christ. That's the power of the Spirit. So apostolic. It then becomes linked to notions of continuity and maturity. So we're not denying the importance of institution, we're not denying the importance of maturity, we're not denying the importance of continuity, but it's all through this lens of moving across cultural barriers. So the conversion of local institutions maturely in the faith, so I don't know you you may or may not have seen a number of these quotes that go along the lines of to be fully Christian is not to be fully African. So that's a very sad quote. It means basically, you have to give up your africanus To become Christian, which basically means you have to become wisdom. The point is, you don't have to do that.
If I may, I would like to read a quote
a quote from
If you're interested, it's on page 139 of my book. So it's a it's a quote from Buddhism and tutors and this is a with part of himself. He the African has been compelled to pay lip service to Christianity as understood, expressed and preached by the white man. But with an ever greater part of himself apart he has often been ashamed to acknowledge openly, and which he has struggled to repress. He has felt that as African pneus has been violated. The white man's largely cerebral religion was hardly touching the depths of his African soul. He was being redeemed for sins. He did not believe he had committed He was given answers and often splendid answers to questions he had not asked. So it's that feeling of not not being fully part of the faith that you've received something that really isn't speaking at the deepest levels of your own being. So I think that's one form of pasta olicity that that cultural transference. But I think the world Christianity element of it is actually saying, actually, it's that taking on at the deepest part that is that is central to the faith. And I think that's participation in Jesus's own history, and the conversion to that history. So the breaking open of ourselves to move beyond where we think we end up.
Thank you so much for that beautiful reflection. And if I can ask a final question that I've been asking everyone on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and what can Christians do to pursue the real unity of the church Church. Thank you.
So again, that's what the payoff comes right? What's the payoff question? The answer I can give, I suppose will be an anecdote. And the anecdote comes from Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And I went there and taught a little bit and we got invited to present at a ecumenical gathering and a sickie. Medical gathering is full of Baptists, Pentecostals, Neo Pentecostals, African independence, Presbyterians, you know. And the thing that struck me is that one Shazam is a important element into African history. So in other words, we have all of our historical isms in the West and we have simply relocated them somewhere else. So we've got Baptist, Presbyterian, you name it, but their health splits. They're not the African splits Second, they're all they're working together. So whatever you whatever they named, they named but they're actually all they're working together. There is all there is a unity living embodied unity in the faith, there will be disagreement, but they're not going to be some of the surface disagreement we are able to display. Now the reason this is important is because I don't know if you know Goma, but GM is notoriously bad for militants and militants come through and destroy. So we were when I was teaching we're basically shit we were brought back to a compound was two meter, three meter high walls, with people with ak 47, sitting at the top and you're having a beer in the evening and you're hearing gunfire and hearing people screaming, and you know, there's no hospitals or anything like that. So you're shipping it backwards and forwards to places that are really trying to do theology and then Looking after widows, orphans and strangers in a much better way than we managed to do here. Now the reason that we're meeting is because a group of militants have just come through. In fact, the tail end of them still there, while we're there, the UN's they're in their tanks. And they're talking about peace. And they're talking about hope. And they asked the question of what is hope. And they use the metaphor of planting little seeds and those little seeds springing up and then the militants come through and wash it all away. So you're creating these little seeds, but every six months, it's all getting washed away. So they're asking me what is hope?
And I have no clue.
Because I'm not there. I just, it's just a profound experience to me. Now, we may talk about unity, we may talk about visible unity, we may talk about doctrinal unity, but here you actually have the power of a gospel amongst a group of people. People who are trying to bring peace in a time of violent conflict. So again, if I could use the American political system as a metaphor you have in the discussion, how are angry? How are evangelicals voting? How are Catholics voting our educated X, Y, and Z voting. So what we've basically done is block broken up into religious blocks. Very tribal, we're saying we're we're voting that because these are the values that are going on here. There is, that just isn't the first thing you see. The first thing you see is the attempt to witness to the power of God and a position of violence, hate, despair. And they give everything they're giving everything they have. So they're looking after the widows and the orphans and the strangers. And to me, it's just such a powerful lesson, because we can set and we can chat and we can have all the lovely theories. But until you start to sort of see it in action, you don't really know what it is. So for all of the sort of confusion, the glorious confusion, chaos, you name it that you see in world Christianity, there's a timber there. There's a, there's a heartbeat. There's a narrative that's actually showing us I think what unity might look like, even though it's very different from perhaps what we expect it to be in terms of institutional shared ministry, Eucharistic celebration, all of those things occur. They're just by nature. They're not something that you have to argue for.
I suppose that would be my answer.
It's been our privilege today to be speaking with the Reverend Dr. JOHN G. Flat, associate professor of intercultural theology and Missy ology at the pilgrim theological College in Australia, and also author of the text that we've been discussing today, a pasta eliciting the ecumenical question in Christian perspective, Professor Flett, thank you for your time.
You're most welcome. Thanks. You very much