Book Review: Apostolicity, by John G. Flett
John G. Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016) US$40, 392pp.
“And [I believe] one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Across generations and around the globe, Christians have confessed these words from the Nicene Creed. Although these words professedly unite the church, there are profound disagreements concerning their meaning.
Since the time of the Reformation, for example, two significantly different understandings of apostolicity have been current—that of the Reformers, and that of Rome. Into this centuries-old breach has stepped John G. Flett, who lectures at Pilgrim Theological College (University of Divinity, Melbourne, AU). In this published version of his Habilitationsschrift, Flett argues that both Protestants and Roman Catholics have fundamentally misunderstood the church’s apostolicity. The alternative that Flett proposes is far-reaching. Not only does it promise to resolve a long-standing theological difference, but it also has profound implications for the church’s beliefs, government, and mission.
Flett argues that traditional understandings of apostolicity are fundamentally misguided. Conventional definitions of apostolicity, “defined as faithfulness to origins expressed in the continuity of mission,” “often prioritize historical continuity and its associated institutional means” (16). This is said to have disastrous consequences for world Christianity: “A received orthodoxy prevails, one which makes claims on, but remains uninformed by, the developments of world Christianity” (ibid.). As a result, the church stresses the “cultivation of the faith” over the “communication of the faith,” creating a church “culture” of identity, practice, and institution that must be transmitted to the world in her missionary enterprise (16, 17).
One problem with this framework, Flett argues, is that it overlooks “the possibility that the local response to the gospel might produce different structural expressions” that are not only legitimate but also “essential to maturity in the faith” (19). What’s needed, therefore, is a renewed understanding of apostolicity. This renewed understanding must “be defined in terms of, and not in contest with, the diverse expressions of world Christianity” (19).
In the modern era, Flett argues “churches of every tradition were guilty of transporting culturally located forms of Christian expression … presented as normative and necessary to the gospel” (24). But there is, in fact, “no culture-free gospel” (24). The problem is not that the gospel was clothed in cultural form; the problem is that the gospel was never permitted to undergo “local appropriation” (26, cf. 285). Apostolicity does not mean the church is “a visible and historically continuous society against the cross-cultural transmission and appropriation of the faith.” It means, rather, that the church is “a visible society in the event of cross-cultural transmission” (53).
In his second and third chapters, Flett argues that the twentieth-century ecumenical movement broadly and Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson particularly embrace this conventional yet objectionable understanding of apostolicity. While the ecumenical movement did stress “mission,” it nevertheless presupposed the church to be a “culture” whose “structures” were to be transmitted along the way (58). World Christianity was never permitted to “raise questions concerning the church’s structures and ministries” (59). Robert Jenson has argued at length that “the church is a culture” (103). “Mission,” on this understanding, “becomes the process of enculturating peoples into the church’s culture,” a practice that “corresponds well to the lamented practice of colonization” (103–4, 137).
In Chapter 4, Flett refines his critique of colonization. The prevailing understanding of apostolicity-as-cultivation “opposes the pluralism and polycentrism inherent to world Christianity” (141). It serves to “isolate the dominant theological tradition from the criticisms of world Christianity” (141). It fails to “account for the appropriation of the gospel and the pluralism of expression this entails” (184). In reality, Flett argues, “cross-cultural transmission and local appropriation are necessary to a theological definition of apostolicity” (184).
Flett insists conventional understandings of apostolicity are ethnocentric (even Eurocentric) and culturally imperialistic. Insofar as they seek to replicate theological and ecclesiological structures in non-Western cultures, they remain deaf to the voices and contributions of world Christianity. How, then, is apostolicity to be rightly understood?
In Chapter 5, Flett isolates an insight of the twentieth-century Dutch modern theologian, Johannes Christiaan Hoekendijk. While not uncritical of Hoekendijk’s project, Flett expresses fundamental appreciation for what he regards as Hoekendijk’s “detach[ment of] the church from [a] territorial conception” and “replace[ment of] a definition of mission based in territory with one based in history” (55, cf. 285).
Flett, in the sixth chapter, seeks to bring Hoekendijk into conversation with world Christianity. Mission, Flett argues, must be seen as “the process of conversion and so the turning of all things to Christ,” including the converted community’s “cultural and religious past” (55). This conversion is necessarily one that will assume “structural expression,” including “structures, institutions, order, liturgy, hymnology, and historical continuity” (56). Conversion, so understood, will happen as “the gospel” is “work[ed] out … in the language and structures through which it is received” (285). Seen along these lines, “unity” must “refer to the whole Christian economy in its very pluriformity” (286). In fact, Flett cites with cautious approval Peter Phan’s statement: “there is not, nor has there ever been, one Christianity; rather there exist Christianities (in the plural), all over the world, and all the time” (287).
In his final substantive chapter, Flett acknowledges that one liability of his proposal is that it “risks conflating the dynamic of translation with simple sociological process” (289). He seeks, then, to offer an expressly biblical and theological foundation for his understanding of apostolicity (290). The Twelve Apostles, for Flett, represent “the continuity of Jesus’ own history” and were not “an ongoing institution” (311). Paul’s apostleship, however, was different. His apostleship “serve[s] to connect the history of Jesus Christ to the conversion of the Gentiles” (312). The Twelve were called to “the conversion of the history of Israel … to the history of its Messiah,” and Paul extended that mission to the Gentiles (314). Each was called to convert a different culture to the story of Christ. “The central New Testament lesson” is that “no culture is the divine culture; all can be turned to Christ” (328). This movement or dynamic is one the church continues to this day (325). When the church undertakes this mission, she “heed[s] the authority of the apostles” (334).
Depending on Andrew F. Walls, Flett specifically appeals to Acts 15 (the Jerusalem Council) in support of this understanding of apostleship and mission. The Jerusalem Council is the example, par excellence, of how the church embraced “cultural diversity” from the beginning (255–6). It shows how “the conversion of culture [was] basic to the gospel itself” (256).
Entering into the Council, the predominantly Jewish church had embraced “the constitution and practices of [the] Jewish community” (256). But the church did so in light of Jesus Christ, seeking to convert Israel to the story of Christ. In light of that reality, it’s remarkable what was accomplished at the Council as “an act undertaken by Jewish actors and according to Jewish processes and standards” (258). The presenting issue facing the Council was whether circumcision should be required of Gentiles. Behind that, though, was the underlying issue of whether the church would pursue the path of proselytism or conversion. Would she insist on “cultural conformity” to the culture “shaped by the Torah” (259)? Must Gentiles be “enculturat[ed] into a set cultural pattern” (ibid)? Or, would she pursue the path of conversion? Would the church encourage believing Gentiles to live in their own cultures “according to [their] new Christian identity,” a work that would be done “from the inside” (261)? Would the church strive to see the cultures in all their fullness “turn[ed] toward Christ, open[ed] up to him” (ibid.)?
At the Jerusalem Council, the church opted for the latter course. She opted for conversion and rejected proselytism. The “answers present in the Jewish tradition could not simply transfer to the questions embodied in Hellenistic institutions and ways of life” (ibid.). This would be the work of the Gentile converts. The result was not only “significant continuity with the local cultural heritage” but also “an expansion in the Christian tradition itself.”
This, Flett insists, is the apostolicity of the early church.
What are we to make of Flett’s proposal? We may first register two points of appreciation. First, Flett is certainly correct to alert the church to the important complexities of mission and culture. In undertaking its mission to bring the gospel to the nations, the church must take care not to adulterate the gospel. The church is not called to replicate a particular set of cultural assumptions, patterns, and practices. Her call is to go out into the world and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, baptizing men and women in the name of the triune God, and teaching them to obey the whole counsel of God. Flett’s work reminds the church of the vigilance she must exercise in every age.
Second, Flett is in principle correct to say that apostolicity is fundamentally an historical category. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ. By Christ’s command, their testimony to the Christ who was crucified and raised in history is foundational to the church. Any understanding of apostolicity that reduces the doctrine to the replication of existing ecclesiastical structures or understands apostolicity in fundamentally territorial terms is an impoverished one, to say the least. Christianity is an historical religion, and apostolicity is commensurately historical.
However, we may begin to register our concerns with Flett’s work by reflecting on his understanding of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, a biblical and theological keystone to his understanding of apostolicity. First, Flett understands as sociological or cultural what Luke presents as redemptive and historical. For Luke, the gospel in Acts progresses from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile (Acts 1:8). This progression is not fundamentally ethnic in nature. It’s redemptive-historical. That is to say, the gospel is decisively and irreversibly penetrating all sectors of humanity. This movement is distinctive of the New Covenant and marks the definitive conclusion of the Old Covenant era, during which the gospel was largely confined to Israel.
For this reason, “Jew” and “Gentile” are not generally representative of diverse cultures. They reflect the historical particularity of the progress of redemption. The Jerusalem Council is therefore not taking up the question of how to negotiate the intersection of two people-groups as the gospel moves from the one group to the other. It’s not asking the question “what will the thought, life, and patterns of a receptor culture look like when another culture brings the gospel to it?” Instead, it’s asking the question “What does the succession and fulfillment of the Old Covenant by Christ mean for the people of God under the New Covenant?”
But the Council also took up another question, one about which Flett is silent. Circumcision was before the Council as a soteriological matter. Luke tells us that some Jews were pressing circumcision upon the Gentiles as a condition of salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). The Council, then, was compelled to take up circumcision not only as an ordinance characteristic of the Old Covenant life of God’s people, but as a condition of salvation. The Council decisively rejects such a view of circumcision (Acts 15:24), a view that had no foundation in the Old Testament itself. One of the great triumphs of the Council was its bringing renewed clarity to the gospel the church was now tasked with preaching. It’s for this reason that, as the report of the Council spreads to the churches, joy, encouragement, and renewed evangelistic fervor follow (Acts 15:31, 16:5).
For Flett, however, the Council—and therefore his doctrine of apostolicity—is about cultural conversion. Flett’s professed concern for sociological reductionism notwithstanding, he proposes a sociological reading of Acts 15 that effectively mutes the Council’s redemptive-historical and soteriological concerns. This reading, and the understanding of apostolicity it undergirds, raises questions of its own.
For example, Flett rejects a continuous historical transmission of the gospel in terms of the perpetuation of “language and structures,” since to do so would be to enculturate a receptor-people (285). Rather, the gospel is to enter within a culture, and those who embrace the gospel are to transform the thoughts, structures, patterns, and history of their culture from within. Apostolicity concerns the transmission of the gospel within history from one culture to another, and the resultant transformation of the latter culture by believing insiders.
But what assurances may we have that, on these terms, the gospel itself will not be converted by the cultures it enters? How, in other words, do we avoid syncretism? To his credit, Flett is sensitive to this question and addresses it in a long note (275–6, n.119). He commendably distances his project of translation or conversion from syncretism. But his proposal is a vague one, lacking in concrete specifics. We’re offered an account of such conversion in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa, but the account is largely descriptive (276–84). We’re told that a given culture is to be redeemed—“converted … into Jesus Christ’s own [history]”—but we’re given precious little guidance as to how (334).
Nor does Flett offer readers a concrete and detailed statement as to what Christ’s own history actually is. If translation or conversion is the prerogative of insiders, then these insiders must bear a tremendous burden and responsibility both to undertake this work and to assess the merits of their endeavors. Flett’s own proposal fails to provide the necessary guidance and safeguards that will preclude cultural compromise and syncretism.
Finally, Flett’s proposal raises questions about how we are to think about the unity of the church. Unity, he declares, “refers to the whole Christian economy in its very pluriformity” (286). He warns against “a historical fallacy” that “ground[s]” common understandings of “continuity” in the church. This “fallacy” is “linked to a perceived lineal Western course to the demerit of other histories” (ibid.). But on what terms, we must ask, may the creeds, confessions, worship, and polity of the church be transmitted from one generation to another, from one region to another? And if the New Testament does point to such matters as expressive of the church’s unity (see Eph 4:1–16), how would Flett’s proposal permit them to function as such?
In short, the picture of apostolicity that emerges in Acts and the Epistles is a very different one from the one painted by Flett. From the inception of the New Covenant church, believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The apostles, by doctrine and by example, ordered the church’s belief and life (see, for example, Paul’s summary of his Ephesian ministry at Acts 20, esp. 20:21, 24, 25, 27, 32), government (see Acts 6:1–7 and 14:23; 1 Tim. 3:1–13, 5:1–25; Tit. 1:5–9), and worship (see Acts 20:7–16; 1 Cor 12–14; 1 Tim 2:1–15).
It was this apostolic “deposit” that Paul charged Timothy to transmit to elders who were, in turn, to transmit it to others (2 Tim. 2:2). It was this apostolic teaching that would enable the church to discern true undershepherds from devouring wolves (Acts 20:30–32; Tit. 1:9; 1 John 4:1–2). It is in this sense, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, that the church is being now built by Christ upon the once-for-all foundation of the “apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20, cf. Rev. 21:14). Apostolic doctrine, in the hands of the Spirit, founds the church, defines the church, orders the church, defends the church, and extends the church. This is the biblical understanding of apostolicity.
Such an understanding in no way commits us to the colonization or enculturation about which Flett warns. Nor does it fail to give the church’s mission its due. On the contrary, this understanding of apostolicity provides the only authoritative and sufficient framework within which we can satisfactorily address the very complex questions Flett raises. It provides the only basis on which the church may acknowledge errors and failings in her past. And it offers the only true foundation for unity in a church comprised of many peoples and cultures.
Standing anywhere other than upon her biblical and apostolic foundation, the church will find no safety or direction. But with her feet firmly planted upon this foundation, this “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” will be a beacon of bright light in a dark and perishing world.