Denominations, Traditions & Teleology

There is a big word for you. Ontology is the statement of origins. Teleology is the statement of endings. The ontological argument is the argument for the existence of god* that boils down the unmoved mover – it all had to come from some where. Teleology is the opposite. It all has to go somewhere. The teleology of an embryo is to become a baby (sorry if that makes pro-choice a little uncomfortable). Religiously we say things like Jesus Christ, the alpha and the omega. The ontology and the teleology.

So why is Parson Brown stumbling around in Philosophy class? Well, Roger Olsen has written a man-bites-dog essay about denominations. All being good post-moderns we hear the world denomination and go “eww”, right? Dr. Olsen confesses his undying love for them, hence man-bites-dog, very interesting. And in the middle of it he says this.

I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.

Now, let me first say that my gut loves this article and what it says. It is not that I have undying love for denominations – I don’t. What I do like are clear statements of belief – like this one, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord. As Lutherans we say we “believe, teach and confess” a bunch of things. If you don’t agree, you might still be a Christian, but you are not a Lutheran. For example, if you believe that “God is unwilling that all people repent and believe in the Gospel” you might make a perfectly good Calvinist. When you are worried that your are one of those people God has it in for on your death bed, come back to Luther and make a good confession. That puts me more in the Traditions wing. But, the lingering question comes from John 17:20-23. Jesus wishes that we are all one.

Is that a statement of ontology, we all have our being in Christ? Is that a statement of teleology, we all will be joined in one church? An enduring strain of Christianity longs for that prayer as a teleological reality. If we were not such sinners, the church would be one structure here and now. And there is truth there. There is one church – I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as the creed says. But is there any way to see the results of the reformation as a good thing as Dr. Olson clearly does?

If I was going to attempt to answer yes, I have to see Jesus prayer as one of ontology. We all have our foundation and being in Christ alone. I am so used to thinking of Jesus’ prayer as being unanswered in the here and now and taking it as teleological that I’m not sure. It is easier to think in terms of a messed up world. That is probably why I’m a Lutheran and Dr. Olson is an Arminian. He can escape original sin while I can’t.

* – the god of philosophy is not the revealed God of the Bible.

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