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Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory

by Barry Harvey

Brazos, 318 pages, $24


When the Vatican published Dominus Iesus late in the summer of 2000, reactions were generally hostile. I doubt its main author, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was surprised, for the document touched an exposed nerve. It seems to go without saying that neither interreligious nor ecumenical dialogue can succeed if one side ­presupposes that it has all the truth”yet to its critics that is exactly what Dominus Iesus seemed to be saying. It explicitly defends both the salvific uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the claim of the Catholic Church to be the one true Church”the Church that this unique and exclusive Savior intended, and none other.

Advocates of interreligious dialogue (including a large number of Catholic theologians) objected mainly to the first half of the document, dealing with the uniqueness of Christ, while participants in ecumenical dialogue demurred more at the second half, the part that claimed exclusivity for the Roman Church. Not that ecumenists were terribly fond of the first part either, since a liberal ecclesiology usually goes with a liberal Christology. One group, evangelical Protestants, did appreciate Dominus Iesus , since their whole evangelizing drive is premised on confessing Jesus as the one way to salvation. Of course, they did not much like the second half, but that did not mitigate the appreciation.

Still, the issue of ecclesiology will have to be faced, a challenge taken up by Barry Harvey’s latest and passionately felt book, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory . Looking at the almost kaleidoscopic variety of ecclesial bodies in contemporary Christianity, the author cannot help but think of Ezekiel’s vision of those human skeletal remains bleached dry by the sun, when the prophet heard God asking, “Son of man, can these bones live?” to which Ezekiel could only reply, “O Lord God, thou knowest.” This, says Harvey, describes the current situation of the Christian churches: Can the dismembered Church ever be put back together again without direct divine intervention?

God alone knows, but the first step on our part is to remember how the dismemberment took place. Harvey begins by insisting that Protestants will have to cease canonizing the sixteenth century as normative. How could the Reformation be so, since it contributed so much to the dismemberment of the Church? But that decanonization works both ways, for the tragedy of the Reformation was long a-brewing: “The dismembering of Christ’s body . . . did not happen overnight, nor can it be simply laid at the doorstep of the Protestant Reformation or the Enlightenment.” Reuniting the Church requires that we first remember how deep run the dynamics of division: “The logic of separation that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and gained momentum in the modern era has its origins much earlier, when the church joined forces with the rulers and authorities of the present age to govern the saeculum . The division of the Church must therefore be ­examined in conjunction with the emergence, development, and demise of the social project of Christendom.”

In common with many theologians in the Radical Orthodoxy school, Harvey sees the onset of separation occurring with Constantine’s conversion: “The emperor’s change of heart set in motion a series of events that would contribute materially to the dismemberment of the Church as Christ’s true body.” Although Harvey rightly points out that both Chrysostom and Augustine took a dim view of the imperial apparatus, the collapse of the empire in the West over the next two centuries made such hesitations irrelevant; and in the Dark Ages, popes generally longed for a restoration of the imperial throne, which finally took place when Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800.

When later emperors took their sacerdotal responsibilities (on the Byzantine caesaropapist model) more seriously than the popes wanted, conflict with the papacy sharpened. This pairing off of two entities eventually led to the emergence of the nation-state, a process that Harvey roundly condemns: “The nearly total erasure of the eschatological demarcation between the two cities and the expansion of the concept of Christ’s body to include temporal regimes significantly altered the mission of the Church as an ongoing interpretation of creaturely existence lived in relation to the Triune God . . . . With these changes, the social bodies of the Church and the developing territorial states were increasingly separated into two independent and parallel jurisdictions. Church authorities sought to meet the rising power and independence of the state by declaring their own legal and corporate power.”

When the Protestant Reformation led to the complete diremption of Church unity in the West, the word religion took on a whole new meaning. In the Middle Ages, the Latin word religio normally meant a way of life, a method of structuring one’s day around regular prayer, usually in a religious order (as in the now outmoded expression “entering religion”).

But in modern times the word increasingly took on the connotation of private belief, a meaning abetted by the Enlightenment. No wonder Church unity has proved so difficult to achieve, since the presuppositions that should motivate Christians just to be Christian”let alone united in one Church confessing the lordship of Christ”have been so radically undermined. From Constantine to the present, it has been one long, downhill ride. (Not surprisingly, Harvey also blames ancient Israel’s own dead bones on the Davidic monarchy.)

This scenario is, to put it mildly, the Whig interpretation of Church history thrown into overdrive”with a twist, of course. Normally, a Whig historian (Lord Macaulay represents the type) sees England’s Magna Carta as the onset of the story of liberty, leading more or less inevitably to Cromwell’s overthrow of the Stuart monarchy and then to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Later Whigs pick up the story from there and see a seamless trajectory from the Magna Carta to the U.S. Bill of Rights and on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”all leading, I suppose, to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Harvey adopts the same method, only for dystopian purposes: Constantine here serves as the catalyzing agent, but merely in the sense that he began a process that was bound to lead to disaster. I do not wish here to take issue with such frankly teleological accounts of the past, except to point out that, in Harvey’s hands, any prospects for Church unity are grim: “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the Church, particularly in North America, seems more oblivious to its precarious situation than were the exiles in Babylon.”

In any event, Church unity will have to come from below, from praxis. In that regard, it must be admitted that Harvey has a keen eye for incidents that cast a harsh glare on times when Christians have and have not lived up to the gospel. For example, in 1942 a Protestant pastor in Vichy France, André Trocmé, refused to hand over Jews in his parish to the Nazis, while Christians in Germany largely looked the other way. The one exception in Germany was the self-named Confessing Church, whose resistance took an explicitly doctrinal form, which Harvey rightly sees as the clue: Without right doctrine, there will be no right confession, and thus no right behavior, no right praxis.

The trouble is, as Harvey notes, how can there be right doctrine without a divinely instituted authority to define it? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the most famous figure of the Confessing Church, saw the issue clearly, and Harvey adopts the same point: “If such authority could not be instituted, Bonhoeffer concludes, then the final possibility of a Protestant church was gone. The only viable alternatives would be a return to Rome, submission to the state church, or the path into isolation.” As Cardinal Newman pointed out as early as 1845, “A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”

Harvey admits the problem but simultaneously blocks the way to solving it, which becomes apparent even as early as the first chapter, when he says, “Indeed, these divisions may make theology impossible, since the proper agent [for adjudicating disputes] does not exist, unless one simply declares that one particular branch of the church catholic totally comprehends that reality.” Which of course is what one “branch” of the “church catholic” does declare, in Dominus Iesus (and throughout the documents of Vatican II). Of course many will say that doesn’t settle the matter, especially for non-Catholics. But the claim cannot be avoided and is intimately linked to the first part of Dominus Iesus , which evangelicals liked, and the second part, which they largely ignored.

Harvey’s book has made an important contribution to ecclesiology; but for all his claims to have written, as the subtitle promises, a “catholic and baptist” ecclesiology (stressing the lower case here), he almost never engages official Catholic documents or the ecclesiology of the Baptist churches. President John F. Kennedy liked to remind his fellow Americans that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, drawing on a Chinese proverb that has now become virtually a cliché. But clichés usually become such because they are true. Harvey has certainly made an important first step, but we have a long way to go.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago.