Thursday, June 5, 2014

Grounding ourselves in God - Peter Bellini on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed By Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Rev. Dr. Peter J. Bellini, Assistant Professor in the Practice of Global Christianity and Intercultural Studies in the Vera Blinn Chair at United Theological Seminary. Dr. Bellini is responding to Dr. Elaine Robinson's comments on the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

I have been asked to respond to Professor Elaine Robinson’s thoughts on paragraphs 47-55 of the document “Grace Upon Grace:  a Church Formed by Grace,” a theological reflection on the mission of The United Methodist Church, approved by the 1988 General Conference (hereafter referred to as GUG).  First, I would like to thank Dean Robinson for her evident love of the church and mission and her prophetic insights and responses to the document. It is my blessing to be in dialogue with her and the church in these matters.

Historically a movement whose soteriology has defined its ecclesiology, Methodism has often lacked a robust ontology of the church. Robinson notes that “ecclesiology has never been a strong suit of Methodists” and has lacked “practical,” “experiential,” and I might add theoretical, reflection on the subject as well (Robinson par. 1).

Often considered more a soteriological movement, at least in its early years, Methodism at times has had a tendency to emphasize human response over against the sovereign acts of God, or at best a synergy of divine-human action. Robinson points out that GUG’s discussion on ecclesiology “conceives of the church in terms of the actions of human beings, rather than focusing on the formative and prior dimension of God’s grace” (Robinson par.3). I concur with Dr. Robinson and prefer her move to GUG’s that is to locate our starting point with the Missio Dei and thus our participation in the ”formative and prior dimensions of God’s grace.” The body of Christ finds its origin and purpose in God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

I would also extend the Missio Dei further even to a Missio Trinitatis and the internal processions of the divine persons, which ground the missio in the very ontological nature of God. Such a move could function as a corrective for an ecclesial body that tends to stress human and soteriological dimensions over against the eternal ontological dynamics of the divine. While pars. 47-55 are silent in regards to the Trinity, Robinson does make a brief mention of the Trinity and its mission to offer wholeness to the world. I think these are all forward moves, as we seek to discern and participate in the mission, as it originates and flows from the Triune God.

Like Robinson, I get the sense that GUG at times understands the formation of the church as more our “self-giving” rather than God’s grace-giving, or in my words more of our liturgy rather than God’s doxology. “A Church Formed by Grace,” pars. 47-54, does not begin ecclesiologically with God but with the church and its “worship and service” (par. 47). Instead of grounding our worship and service as the body of Christ in identification and participation with (the risen) Christ, GUG seems to root our ecclesial being in our “offering” and self-giving,” rather than on Christ’s offering and self-giving, which again goes back to Robinson’s original contention that ecclesiology has never been the strong suit of Methodists.” Thus United Methodist ecclesiology takes on a more functional rather than relational shape.

Robinson offers a corrective through a “more grace-centered theological statement” in which God “ingathers the church as the body of Christ where God is worshiped and the sacraments administered, in order that the people of God might be sent into the world to discover and participate in the Missio Dei” (Robinson par.3). Here ecclesial initiation is rooted in God’s acts, and mission flows from our sacramental union with Christ.

In spite of GUG’s emphasis on human agency, there is a place where GUG defines the shape of the church within our sacramental covenant with God, specifically the baptismal covenant (Par. 48). Although GUG spells out the implications of our baptismal covenant in terms of conversion and discipleship, it fails to discern the missional implications of our baptismal covenant, which is a call to ministry as well as a call to discipleship.  The administration of the sacrament of baptism is a call into ministry through participation in the death, burial, resurrection, life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

In par 49, GUG defines and makes clear the imperative for mission; “it is impossible to be a true church without being a missionary church” (Par. 49). Robinson seeks to strengthen GUG’s call to mission by connecting it to our Wesleyan via salutis. Mission is the natural fruit of growing in grace, from justification to sanctification. Dean Robinson also rightfully connects mission to the work of God’s prevenient grace (Par.49). God goes into the world before us and calls us to share in God’s mission and be stewards of this gift. Robinson, however, wants to stress that the “impetus and reason for mission” is “grace upon grace” more so than the duty and vocation of the church, as GUG seems to suggest (Robinson par. 5).

Throughout the document and Robinson’s response I picked up on the tension of synergy, and the need to identify the primary movement of God, especially in the missional life of the church. As the document seeks to define the church and mission, it does so through a theological lens that seems to reflect the missiology of a century ago, which was more invested in the human agency of the missional enterprise. Such a missiology is shaped and driven by our “vocation” and “service” to the world “in and for God’s kingdom”, rather than shaped and driven by God as the primary agent of mission in which the church is called to participate in the missional life of God (Par. 49).

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