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Church, theology and the holiness of God

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 April 2019

Steffen Lösel*
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA


This paper addresses the identity crisis of Christian churches under the conditions of late modernity. With Jürgen Moltmann, I describe the dilemma of the contemporary church and of its theology as a crisis both of relevance and identity. I suggest that churches have responded to the loss of their stronghold in the Western world in three ways: liberal Protestants embrace modernity, evangelicals oppose it and a third group, whom I identify as church theologians, try to ignore it. I argue that none of the three approaches successfully solves the church's crisis in late modernity and especially in a consumer culture with its commodification of religion. I trace these struggles of the contemporary church to its loss of alterity, both of God and of the human other, and suggest that we can regain a sense of God's otherness by rediscovering God's holiness.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 Moltmann, Jürgen, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1973), p. 2Google Scholar.

2 Ibid.

3 See Hughes, Graham, Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), pp. 222–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The following section is in part taken from the Introduction, which I wrote for Hughes, Graham, Reformed Sacramentality, ed. Lösel, Steffen (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), esp. pp. xxi–xxviiiGoogle Scholar.

4 See Hughes, Worship as Meaning, pp. 247–9.

5 Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV/4, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 1981), §78Google Scholar.

6 Barth, Karl, ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology’, in The Word of God and Theology, ed. and trans. Marga, Amy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 2011), p. 183Google Scholar. Barth refers critically to Schleiermacher with this comment.

7 Ibid., p. 177; see also pp. 178 and 180.

8 Ibid., p. 177.

9 Ibid., p. 179.

10 Ibid., p. 177.

11 See Pannenberg, Wolfhart, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, trans. Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 46Google Scholar.

12 Although there is a great historical variety of Christian traditions that fit under the umbrella of evangelicalism, all of them share certain characteristics, including opposition to modernity, a strong biblicism, a casuistic form of reasoning and a propositional understanding of religious truth.

13 All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

14 Warnock, Raphael G., The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness (New York and London: New York University Press, 2014), p. 3Google Scholar.

15 The following section is taken from my essay ‘The Kirchenkampf of the Countercultural Colony: A Critical Response’, Theology Today 67 (Fall 2010), esp. pp. 291–2.

16 See Tanner, Kathryn, Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 38. Cf. p. 67Google Scholar, where Tanner directs her critique on the one hand at the representatives of Radical Orthodoxy (John Milbank in particular), and on the other hand at postliberal theologians such as George Lindbeck.

17 See ibid., p. 98.

18 Ibid., p. 117. See also Fergusson, David, Church, State and Civil Society (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), p. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 For this point, see again my Introduction to Hughes, Reformed Sacramentality, pp. xxiii–xxiv.

20 See Hughes, Worship as Meaning, pp. 230–1.

21 Graham Hughes argues for a new and different approach to modernity, which advocates for the Christian proclamation of God from within late modernity, while also showing the relativity of late modern assumptions. What is required, in Paul Ricoeur's terms, is a second naïveté about religious language. Moreover, today truth claims need to be made ‘more lightly and experimentally’, ‘more daring, more experimental, more nearly a “wager”’ (ibid., p. 291). All any Christian can offer is, in Charles Taylor's term, a ‘Best Account’ (ibid., p. 300). The church only has ‘as if’ words to describe what we experience at the boundary of human life. In other words, the church makes ‘proposals, invitations, mythic constructions’ (ibid., p. 294). Such is our only modality of God-talk.

22 For the following, see Miller, Vincent J., Consuming Religion: Consuming Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2003)Google Scholar.

23 Ibid., p. 9.

24 See ibid., p. 106.

25 Picking up on reflections of Michel de Certeau, Miller suggests two ‘tactics’ rather than ‘strategies’ for Catholics to deal with consumer culture's commodification of religion: first, to strengthen the interconnections among beliefs, symbols and values; and second, to strengthen popular agency. See ibid., pp. 181–2. For the use of de Certeau's binary in recent theological proposals, including Miller's, see critically Alonso, Antonio Eduardo, ‘Listening for the Cry: Certeau beyond Strategies and Tactics’, Modern Theology 33/3 (July 2017), pp. 369–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 See Anderson, E. Byron, ‘Worship and Belief: Liturgical Practice as a Contextual Theology’, Worship 75/5 (Sept. 2001), pp. 432–52Google Scholar.

27 Ibid., p. 442.

28 Ibid., p. 446.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., p. 433.

31 Barth, ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology’, pp. 177–8.

32 Ibid., p. 179.

33 See Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969)Google Scholar, and Levinas, , ‘The Trace of the Other’, in Taylor, Mark C. (ed.), Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 435–59Google Scholar.

34 See Hughes, Worship as Meaning, p. 277.

35 For a theological reading of the suburb, see Gorringe, Timothy J., A Theology of the Built Environment: Justice, Empowerment, Redemption (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), pp. 101ff., 149, 178ff., 208–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 For a theological application of Levinas’ insights see Hughes, Worship as Meaning, and Hughes, Reformed Sacramentality.

37 Obviously, there are sociological reasons for why many immigrants choose to worship within their own ethnic communities, including preference for one's familiar worship styles, ability to worship in one's own language and the desire to connect with one's home culture. The phenomenon goes back all the way to the New Testament period, when the ‘Hellenists’ in the early Christian community in Jerusalem separated from the ‘Hebrews’ (see Acts 6:1–6). Still, ethnically homogeneous congregations pose a theological question for a church, which claims that in Christ ‘[t]here is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:28).

38 See Warren, Rick, The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995)Google Scholar.

39 For the emergence of a new migrant church, see Hanciles, Jehu J., Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008)Google Scholar.

40 On community becoming a primary concern in worship, see Lathrop, Gordon W., Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993), p. 114Google Scholar.

41 There is much space reserved here for social gathering before or after worship and the seating in the worship space is often oriented in a circle or a horseshoe shape around altar or pulpit. In this way, the layout of the worship space helps to create a sense of community and group identity, thus turning the congregation itself into a focal point in worship. See Kieckhefer, Richard, Theology in Stone: Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 1213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Hughes, Worship as Meaning, p. 251.

43 See Borchmeyer, Dieter, ‘Herrschergüte versus Staatsräson: Politik und Empfindsamkeit in Mozarts La clemenza di Tito’, in Greven, Michael Th., Münkler, Herfried and Schmalz-Bruns, Rainer (eds), Bürgersinn und Kritik: Festschrift für Udo Bermbach zum 60. Geburtstag (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998), p. 359 n. 11Google Scholar.

44 Inter creatorem et creaturam non potest tanta similitude notari, quin inter eos maior sit dissimilitudo notanda. Denzinger, Heinrich, Enchiridion symbolorum definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum, ed. Hünermann, Petrus (Freiburg: Herder, 1991), §806Google Scholar.

45 Eberhard Jüngel has suggested that in light of the incarnation, this dictum of Lateran IV may well have to be reversed, such that amid a great dissimilarity, there is in Christ a still greater similarity. The difference between God and humanity, he argues, is ‘not the difference of a still greater dissimilarity, but rather, conversely, the difference of a still greater similarity between God and man in the midst of a great dissimilarity’. Jüngel, Eberhard, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute between Theism and Atheism, trans. Guder, Darrell L. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 288Google Scholar. See also Jüngel, Eberhard, Gott als Geheimnis der Welt: Zur Begründung der Theologie des Gekreuzigten im Streit zwischen Theismus und Atheismus, 5th edn (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1986), p. 393Google Scholar; and the response of von Balthasar, Hans Urs, Theologik, vol. 2, Wahrheit Gottes (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1985), pp. 247–8 n. 3Google Scholar.

46 For the following, see Hughes, Reformed Sacramentality, esp. pp. 91–111, and my Introduction, pp. xl–xli and xlv.

47 See Hughes, Reformed Sacramentality, p. 32.

48 See ibid., pp. 73–5.

49 As biblical scholars Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann observe, ‘[i]f addressing God as “Father” expresses [God's] unique nearness, then the first petition underscores the fact that, just as constitutive as this proximity is God's inaccessible holiness, which he must himself repeatedly emphasize over against the misuse or disrespect of his name’. Feldmeier, Reinhard and Spieckermann, Hermann, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology, trans. Biddle, Mark E. (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), p. 17; cf. p. 52Google Scholar. By teaching his disciples to pray, ‘Our father in heaven’ (Matt 6:9), Jesus brings God close to them in an entirely new way.

50 See Exod 33:20: ‘no one shall see me and live’. Already Jacob wondered that he had ‘seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved’ (Gen 32:30). And so he named the place Peniel, the face of God.

51 See Feldmeier and Spieckermann, God of the Living, p. 18. See also Josh 24:19; 6:20; Isa 5:16; 10:17, 20; 40:25; Ezek 39:7; 42:13; Hos 12:1.

52 Feldmeier and Spieckermann (God of the Living, p. 19) translate the verse: ‘the abundance of the earth is his glory’.

53 See ibid., pp. 18–19: ‘glory is the gift of participation in God himself that constitutes the abundance of the world. Abundance involves a concept that gives the world the definitive distinction of being God's property (cf. Ps. 24:1–2, 7–10).’

54 See Lathrop, Holy Things, p. 11.

55 Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 5.19, quoted in Lathrop, Holy Things, p. 133.

56 For the concept of noncompetitive relationship, see Tanner, Kathryn, God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

57 Feldmeier and Spieckermann, The Living God, 71: ‘The center of Pauline theology and the revolutionary element of his language about God as Father is the very fact that by revealing himself in the folly and scandal . . . of his Son's cross, God permitted believers to participate in his holiness and righteousness, in his wisdom and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30) because, in his Son, God “gives us all things” (Rom. 8:32).’

58 Lathrop, Holy Things, p. 133.

59 For a sustained critique of the ethnographic approach to doing theology within an African American context, see Jennings, Willie James, ‘Wrestling with a Wounding Word: Reading the Disjointed Lines of African American Spirituality’, Modern Theology 13/1 (Jan. 1997), esp. pp. 145, 151–2CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

60 Barth, ‘The Word of God as the Task of Theology’, p. 185.

61 Ibid.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., p. 177.

64 Ibid.

65 See Hughes, Worship as Meaning, pp. 250–1.

66 As Moltmann pointed out already in The Crucified God, for Christians ‘the “vertical dimension” of faith and the “horizontal dimension” of love for one's neighbor and political change are not alternatives’. Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 22.

67 Lathrop, Holy Things, p. 130.

68 Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 43–4.

69 Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 25. This paper is an edited version of a lecture at Florida Southern College, 28-29 Nov. 2017, for a conference on ‘The Future of Christian Theology’ (An Extraordinary 2017-2018 Warren W. Willis Lecture in Religion with the Inaugural P. M. Boyd Lecture in Evangelism).

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