Review: Reclaiming the Church John B. Cobb, Jr (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky) 1997 110 pages
John Cobb situates this critique and proposed remedy for mainline churches within his own United Methodist tradition, but the critique and the remedy have application beyond those limits. Cobb’s central concern is with the lack of passion among members of the church for the mission of the church. According to his analysis this lackadaisical inertia is due in large measure to the way lay people have been absolved of the responsibility to think about theology, relegating this task to “upper” echelons of church leadership and academia. Cobb cites two typical responses that intend to remedy the malady - renewal and transformation. While he recognizes the inevitable overlap of these movements he does see transformation as the more radical response, and this book focuses on the dynamics of these options in various particular challenges the church currently faces.
In Cobb's view a recovery of a shared conviction that holds theology as of utmost significance to the church and the world is an indispensable component in a renewal of passion. In his review of the history of the church Cobb acknowledges that lukewarmness is not the only danger related to conviction. There are eras of church history in which conviction led to fanaticism, which is also deterimental to the mission of the church. The challenge is to develop appropriate convictions that are based on proper respect for legitimate authority. The history of the church contains examples of insufficiently critical allegiances that proved unhealthy for the church's commitments and passions. The rise of rationalism, for example, could have been a tool for attenuating commitments to legitimate authority, but rationalism too quickly was over-extended to a position of independent authority, usurping the place that should have been the purview of other legitimate authorities for the church.
One of the most pervasive challenges to our understanding of authority (both understanding what is authoritative, and discerning the message of that authority) that Cobb notes is the challenge of feminism. Particularly with regard to the role of women, as well as proper language for God, the church has experienced cataclysmic foment regarding authority. Unsurprisingly this is also an area in which conviction and passion have often not been lacking, but have not always been helpful either. This challenge provides an example of the differing emphases represented by Cobb's notions of renewal versus transformation. Renewalists tend to desire a recovery of the pure stream of biblical teaching from the stew that has developed in syncretism with other sources (53). On Cobb's reading renewalists primarily emphasize renewal within the church based on an understanding of our biblical heritage. Surrounding culture has nothing of value that should be allowed to significantly inform our understanding of scripture. It is legitimate for influence to flow from the church to society in appropriate areas, but it is seldom, if ever, legitimate for society to have any influence on the church and her reading of scripture.
Transformationalists also wish to recover the truth of our heritage but they see heretofore unanticipated and unimagined expressions of that truth as legitimate, if not necessary, to the genuine pursuit of that truth where ever it may lead. Transformationalists see the biblical record as an account of how the early church creatively responded to the issues of their time out of a deeply textured understanding of scripture. This may facilely appear to be a unidirectional influence, but transformationalists recognize that the very act of responding to the issues of the time already gives surrounding culture a significant influence in our understanding of scripture. It is not a question of compromising the meaning of scripture by overlaying it with a cultural interpretation. Rather it simply recognizes that meanings are always apprehended within a certain context, and therefore wishes to be be more aware of how cultural sensitivities always inform, but should not naively dictate, the meaning one gleans from a text. The variant impact of these approaches on any attempt to renew passion by a broad-based recovery of the theological enterprise among all believers is immediately evident. When these approaches become part of widely held convictions among various people conflict will be inevitable. Even when agreement concerning proper authority can be achieved, consensus regarding the message of that authority will not be so easily realized. Cobb outlines the responses of each approach to several significant issues including feminism, nationalism, post-modernism, and the sexual revolution (48ff).This book is a stimulating challenge to recover our theological heritage in a faithfulness to scripture that appreciates our historically rooted readings of scripture while also understanding that God's Word is living today. The project to recover theology as a meaningful exercise of the laity goes a long ways towards this goal as it represents incremental progress towards recognizing the role of culture in our understanding of scripture. The emphasis on transformation recalls Jesus' discourse with the religious elite of his own time. Simply maintaining the truth of scripture as it has been handed down to us will effectively suffocate the living Word and make it just another empty tradition. It is not a simple matter to be honest with how our cultural (academic, religious, etc.,) assumptions have enabled us to read and understand scripture, but always from the particular perspective embodied in those assumptions. We must hold unswervingly to the Truth of scripture, but doing so must lead us into new ways of being faithful that are at least as radical as the ways Jesus proposed to the religious leaders of his own time.