Magazine article The Christian Century

Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church

Magazine article The Christian Century

Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church

Article excerpt

Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church

By Robert C. Saler

Fortress, 192 pp., $49.00 paperback

When the Catholic Church's Extraordinary Synod on the Family convened last year to discuss theologically fraught issues from divorce and cohabitation to homosexuality, an unusually public debate swirled around it. What is theological truth, people asked, and where does the authority reside to define it? In an essay called "Why I Am a Catholic," New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued that the "search for authority in Christianity" began with the need to know what had been taught by Jesus and the apostles, rather than with "pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy."

It's a chicken-and-egg theological question: Is there a Christian truth that is prior and external to the teaching ministry that proclaims it? By briefly suggesting a shift in doctrine supported by impeccably magisterial teaching authority, the Synod on the Family brought that question to the fore.

In making his own case for doctrinal and disciplinary stability in the area of divorce, Douthat distinguished himself from a considerable body of fellow converts, mostly from Anglican and Lutheran churches, whose explanations suggest a search for authority expressed by an established hierarchy. These authors, including Paul Griffiths, R. R. Reno, Reinhard Hutter, and Leonard Klein, collectively suggest by their conversions that a crisis is afoot in the world of confessional, theologically catholic Protestantism.

This crisis is not strictly an illusion, Lutheran theologian Robert Saler suggests in Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church. The relationship between how we conceive of theological authorship and how we conceive of the church--Saler's two main concerns--is particularly unsettled. Theological authorship is increasingly authorized by the norms of academic publishing and hiring or by the marketplace writ large, rather than by the norms of a distinct and identifiable church. It is this new marketplace that creates the profusion of theologies inflected by race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as their libidinous cultural cognates, which so many of these recent converts from Protestantism have found offensive. Saler summarizes the alternative expressed by these writers as "high-magisterial polis ecclesiology," which seeks to locate authentic theology in a "concrete, visible, unified and magisterially underpinned" public, namely the church. In this understanding the church can, with its own norms, resist the corrosive power of the anarchic marketplace.

Saler finds the contemporary authorial problem foreshadowed in the works of two pairs of theological writers: Thomas More and William Tyndale during the Reformation, and John Henry Newman and Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The debates--literal and violent in the case of More and Tyndale, figurative and conflated in the case of Newman and Schleiermacher--are at once distant and familiar. With More and Newman we see painfully tautological arguments from authority; with Tyndale and Schleiermacher, conceptions of theological virtuosity that threaten to escape any norm whatsoever. …

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