I am grateful that Professor (or is it Agent?) Smith took a little time to address some of the concerns I raised regarding his excellent book. He would have been justified to take the route of Stanhope from Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell, who, when asked about the meaning of his play, would only answer by reading it.

But that he did not is, I’m afraid, no excuse for the rest of us.  He and I are in complete agreement that the book must be read.

As I have been ruminating on his reply all weekend, I thought I would offer a few remarks in response.

But rather than continue the order in which I began my critiques, allow me to reverse them, for one simple reason:  my worries about Smith’s view of Scripture are worries that extend beyond the scope of Desiring the Kingdom. While I think they are relevant, I don’t want to give the impression that they are about the main thrust of Smith’s book.  They are not.  Even if Smith and I end up disagreeing on that point, we could still agree on his anthropology (as I think we do) and on his vision for Christian formation and the university (and I do think we’re closer than I let on).

I’ll start, then, with my final point, which was to suggest that the evangelical universities Smith critiques are actually much closer to his vision of the university than he supposes.

Smith’s argument is that all education is moral formation. And on this point, we certainly agree.  But his critique of evangelical universities seems to presuppose that all moral formation happens in the same way. Hence, his central response to my point about Biola’s integration of worship and of their practices of education is that its chapels and church worship services do not reflect the sort of historic shape of Christian worship he outlines.  And he’s right.  They don’t.

But it’s not clear why as a chapel within the cathedral they need to.  There is moral formation occurring in the classroom and beyond, as Biola consciously recognizes.  What’s more, Biola emphasizes the communal and spiritual lives of its students outside the classroom.  As a student who was on the council handling matters of discipline, I can attest that they situate the intellectual life of the university within a much broader, more holistic framework.  And if as a university they stay within their limited mission of the formation of disciples through the formation of the Christian mind, then it is not clear to me why their worship as a university has to take the same form as the local church.

But Smith’s point about evangelicals unconsciously adopting the practices of American corporate culture could be a decisive argument against this point.  If the chapel services at Biola are working against the robust moral formation happening throughout the university, then that is clearly a problem.  Outside of a more robust criterion, it is difficult to tell.  After all, we might say that evangelicals have baptized American corporate culture (which makes it sound much more theological, no?) the way that the early church baptized many of the elements of pagan culture (see:  the Church calendar).

But I should say that I am sympathetic to Smith’s critiques here.  I have spent time worshipping within both the evangelical and Episcopalian traditions, and would argue that evangelicals have much to learn from more embodied-oriented traditions.  At the same time, I think it plausible that evangelicals are encountered by the living God, and are encountered more frequently than many of those who worship in the ways that Smith outlines.  And it is, after all, God who is the source of our moral formation.

On this point, then, I look forward to Smith’s continued work on articulating a criterion for identifying the secular liturgies that cut against the Gospel.  I agree with him that his central point is that his central criteria is the vision for the Kingdom which is….where?  Smith contends “implicit in the practices of Christian worship.”  But while I agree such practices cut against political ideologies of both the Left and Right, it is less clear how they do so, or if they do so in the same way.

But this leads back to my first critique, which is really to raise the problem of the criteria with respect to Christian worship (and beyond).  Professor Smith has captured my intuitions on the question.  I do think that maintaining the normativity of Scripture entails giving it a higher priority than worship, if we are talking about our means of knowing the shape the Christian faith ought to take in the world, even if our primary encounter with Scripture is within the context of worship.

I don’t want to gloss over the historical difficulties of the “phenomena of Scripture,” as I agree with Smith that it’s important to take those into account.  But I suspect Smith is giving up a bit more than he intends in the admission that the Church was never without Scripture.  Even while the New Testament was being written and codified, their belief that Jesus was the Son of God was a belief that he came according to the Scriptures. In this way, Scripture seems to precede the Church, and the Church seems to be constituted in response to the revelation of the Son of God, a revelation who was seen as the Son of God and not as anyone else because he was according to the Scriptures.

Scripture’s home might still be worship, then.  And it clearly has a formative effect on the people of God when properly located within that context.  But our access to the normative content of the faith, the effect of that content on us, and the normative content itself must be kept distinct.  We might say that with respect to the first two, Scripture stands in a mutual relationship with the Church.  But with respect to the last, Scripture precedes the Church in an important way, and so extends beyond the formation we experience within Christian worship.

Again, this critique is beyond the scope of Smith’s book and argument. What’s more, it in no way invalidates Smith’s central point about Scripture’s effect on us.  Scripture does do something to us in worship, which is why it is a scandal that Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other traditions have more public reading of Scripture in their services than we Bible-oriented evangelical Protestants.  But my worry is that focusing on Scripture’s effect within the worshipping body of Christ obscures Scripture’s position over the Church as its rule for faith and practice.  In acknowledging Scripture as the normative rule, I can’t see how we avoid giving it ontological priority, even if our epistemic access to its rule happens primarily within the context of the worshipping people of God.

But I will (again) reiterate one crucial point that Smith made in his response:  there is no substitute for reading the book. And I suspect there will be no substitute for reading his next two volumes, either. If they are half as fruitful, as challenging, and as interesting as Desiring the Kingdom, they will be enormously valuable indeed.

More on: Theology

Articles by Matthew Lee Anderson

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