Agamben cites Rudolf Sohm ( Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty , 9), who argued that “the primitive church [was] a charismatic community, within which no properly juridical organization was possible.” There was no “legal power to rule” but instead “the organization of the primitive community can consequently have only a charismatic character.” It’s not until Clement’s letter to the Corinthians that we see the notion that presbyters and bishops “have a right to exercise their ‘liturgy’” and this ended up with “the transformation of the primitive church into the Catholic Church, of the original charismatic community into the juridical organization that is familiar to us.”

So far, so Weberian. Or, to say the same: So far, so Kantian. Or to say the same again: So far, so Pietist.

That there are changes in church organization between Paul and Clement is no doubt true. That these changes are well captured by the opposition of charisma to law is highly doubtful. And this (very old) paradigm, and other assumptions of like order, lead Agamben into some missteps in his fascinating book. For instance, he makes much of what he sees as the tension between Hebrews’s emphasis on the once-for-all character of Jesus’ death and the inevitably repetitive liturgical practice of the church, as if a continuing liturgy somehow violates the decisiveness of Christ’s work. But Hebrews itself climaxes with a description of “acceptable service” ( latreuo ) that embraces not only liturgical acts strictly speaking but the liturgy of hospitality, prison visitation, sexual purity (12:28-13:17). In fact, it includes a sacrificial meal (13:10), something that Agamben claims is absent from Hebrews.

One wonders if lingering behind Agamben’s reading of Hebrews is the residue of the theory that the primitive church’s eschatological excitement was dashed by the delay of the parousia. He seems to expect that, if Hebrews were true, there would be no continuing community of Jesus after His death, as if time would stop.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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