Wednesday, November 2, 2016

John Flett's Apostolicity

Today it was my pleasure and privilege to launch the latest book of my Pilgrim Theological College colleague and friend, John Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016). The following is the text of my comments on the occasion. It was one of five books being launched at the University of Divinity's Learning and Teaching Day, so I had only five minutes available. So much more could be said about the book, but I hope even these brief remarks generate interest in what is a very important book.

In 1959, the Joint Commission on Church Union, the body whose work led to the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia two decades later, published its first report. In it the Commission wrote this about apostolicity: “Succession in ministerial order is good; succession in apostolic faith and life is essential.”
I have always been encouraged by this contrast and have often used it as a springboard to defend a concept of apostolicity not determined by ministerial order. 
Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective has, however, woken me from my apostolic slumber and made me realise that I wasn’t being anywhere near as radical as I thought I was when affirming a an alternative notion of apostolicity.  
This book is the published version of John’s Habilitationsshcrift which he completed in Wuppertal in 2015. It follows his earlier ground-breaking work on Missiology, The Witness of God, published in 2010.
John’s meticulous, broad-ranging and impressively-documented argument confronted me with the fact that the concept of apostolicity in which I had put such confidence was, firstly, a reflection of a binary produced by Catholic/Protestant polemics and, secondly, completely uninformed by the realities of world Christianity.  
By ‘world Christianity’ John means a polycentric, culturally plural and institutionally diverse communion. The pluriformity of this communion does not simply represent accidental and diverse manifestations of a stable universal.
Rather, this pluriformity is itself of material theological significance. It informs an ongoing  and dynamic view of apostolicity rather than being measured for its faithfulness to some pre-existing definition of apostolicity.
John threads various strands of evidence and argument together to reach this position. There is a close reading of key ecumenical documents beginning with the 1971 text, Apostolicity and Catholicity and extending to the recent 2013 text, The Church: Towards a Common Vision.
There is a sustained rejection of the idea of Christianity forming a fixed culture, a rejection that is built around, to a large extent, a vigorous critique of  Robert Jenson’s claim that there is. There is also a fascinating political analysis of apostolicity when John brings colonisation and apostolicity into dialogue.
John’s constructive argument builds on, among many other elements, the cultural diversity and cross-cultural encounter evident in the New Testament. 
Above all, however, he develops a Christology as that to which any concept of apostolicity must be subordinate. He argues that Jesus Christ himself is the foundation of the plurality of apostolicity.
Let me illustrate some of the strands of this argument with just a few quotations.
On the link often drawn between the church’s visibility and the apostolic universality of its structures, John writes as follows:
…isolating  the discussion of apostolicity from cross-cultural engagement permits an abstraction of ecclesiology from the concrete conditions of the church even whilst grounding the apology for that abstraction within an account of the church as a continuous visible social reality. A fundamental inconsistency is in play here. The logic of the livedness of the church community, if rigorously applied, needs to account for the richness of structures evident in world Christianity and by extension their richness through Christian history. (p.101)

John refers to Bolaji Idowu’s analysis of the Nigerian church and its deep sense of needing to become Western in order to become Christian. This leads John to reflect on the link between the ‘foreignness of Christianity’ and the process of colonization – and the ecumenical movement’s apparent blindness to this link.
It is difficult to shake the conclusion that the dominant ecumenical model for apostolicity, that of cultural continuity, mandates colonization as the method of cross-cultural missionary transmission with all that this entails for uneven power relationships, paternalism, building relationships of dependence and, finally, maintaining a state of Christian infancy (p.181).

Finally, in a wonderful chapter on the Christological foundation of apostolicity, John draws heavily on the claim that the centre and identity of church lies outside of itself precisely because its centre and identity is Jesus Christ. I quote:
The church finds its identity beyond itself, in the history of Jesus Christ. In this resides the possibility of conversion, the possibility of multiple Christian histories (p.320).
…diversity is a direct correlate of the apostolate’s Christological ground and calling – not secondary or accidental, but part of the full stature of Jesus Christ’s body (p.326).

This is a fine book. It is bound to generate controversy – and so it should. The questions are pressing ones and to neglect them would be to risk ignoring the challenges of world Christianity.
I hope, too, that this University, drawing together different traditions with diverse understandings of apostolicity, might also find ways to engage the issues which John raises. We need to do so, I believe, as the Australian church inevitably find its own life shaped to an ever greater degree by the polycentric and pluriform Christian communion of which John writes so powerfully.
It is delight to have John as a colleague and one who I’m sure, both through this book and the others which will come, will provoke and encourage us in our faith and scholarship. I warmly commend the book to all of you.

1 comment:

The Gazmeister said...

Thanks Geoff. A helpful introduction which has convinced me to read John's work.