Tom Howard's "Recognizing Church"

I recently bought a new book for myself (which I have been doing a lot less of in the past 6 months) called Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, Essays in honor of Thomas Oden. The book is ecumenical with perhaps a slight Methodist leaning but contains essays from a number of scholars on various ways that we can learn from the early church and it has been quite enjoyable so far.
One chapter that both delighted and frustrated me was Thomas Howard's chapter on the marks of the church. Howard, during his Anglican phase, wrote the excellent introduction to Liturgical theology called Evangelical is not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament.
This chapter is good, but clearly comes out of his final (or just current?), Roman Catholic phase, as the last few sections of the essay (the part that frustrated me) clearly demonstrate.

But here is an excerpt that really hit home with me as Howard describes his attitude towards the early fathers and their "catholic" theology in his Fundamentalist phase:

The Creed is not Scripture; that is true. But then all of us, whether we come from groups that repeat the Creed or not, would agree, "Oh yes, indeed; that is the Faith which we all profess." Some would add, "But of course, we get it straight out of the Bible. We don't need any creed." The great difficulty here is that Eutychius and Sabellius and Arius got their notions straight out of the Bible as well. Who will arbitrate these things for us? Who will speak with authority to us faithful, all of us rushing about flapping the pages of our well-thumbed New Testaments, locked in shrill contests over the two natures of Christ, or baptism, or the Lord's Supper, or the mystery of predestination?...

...the antiquity of the Church confronts me. As an Evangelical, I discovered while I was in college that it was possible to dismiss the entire Church as having gone off the rails by about A.D. 95. That is, we, with our open Bibles, knew better than old Ignatius or Polycarp or Clement, who had been taught by the apostles themselves-we knew better than they, just what the Church is, and what it should look like. Never mind that our worship services would have been unrecognizable to them, or that our church government would have been equally unrecognizable, or the vocabulary in which we spoke of the Christian life would have been equally unrecognizable. We were right, and the Fathers were wrong. That settled the matter.

The trouble here was that what these wrong-headed men wrote-about God, about our Lord Jesus Christ, about his Church, about the Christian's walk and warfare-was so titanic, and so rich, and so luminous, that their error seemed infinitely truer and more glorious than my truth. I gradually felt that it was I, not they, who was under surveillance.

There are 3 or 4 theologians who really pushed me to reconsider the authority of the Church, something the New Testament is very up-front about and which we contemporary evangelicals are almost afraid to speak of for fear of sounding "Romish." After all, how can the "invisible church" exercise the sort of authority that the New Testaments tells us is ours? What is all this about binding and loosing (Matt. 16), about forgiving and retaining the sins of others (John 20)? In a faith that is fundamentally based upon the miracle of Incarnation - what does it mean for the Church to be the Body of Christ in the world, for the Church to be "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:16)? How can we possibly practice these things in our current way of being church?

Is the individual Christian the final authority in his own life, or can the Church interpret the meaning of God's revelation in Scripture with binding authority? Truly she can if the Church is actually filled with the same Spirit that inspired the Bible. The Apostolic Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) gives us the model of how the Apostolic Church delt with doctrinal controversy (which always has practical implications). The "undivied Church" of the first 5 (if not the first 10) centuries of this New Age followed a similar pattern, and I believe has equal authority (many of the Protestant Reformers emphasized the authority of early teachings and councils, but that teaching has mostly become lost on Prostestants). What could such a conciliar consensus look like today, I wonder?

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