Engaging with Chad C. Pecknold on ecumenism

2014  Pro Ecclesia Conference  features Chad Pecknold, a very fine budding postliberal Catholic theologian whose writings I have admired for quite some time and one major reason for which I chose to come.


He gave a paper on « Augustine on Principalities and Powers » as this year’s topic is on the theology of powers and principalities. After the session, I had the chance to ask some questions face-to-face, first with respect to how his views changed after his work “Transforming Postliberal Theology” has published in 2005 (which is based on his Cambridge doctoral dissertation under David Ford), which then led to the painting of  a bigger picture about political theology, ecumenical and sacramental theology, and the strand of « positive Catholic » postliberal theology he and co. (such as R. R. Reno) represents vis-a-vis Ephraim Radner and co.’s « lamenting and ever Protestant » postliberal theology.



Chad Pecknold (Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America) speaks at the 2014 Pro Ecclesia Conference held by Center of Catholic and Evangelical Theology at Loyola University of Maryland

Basically the conversion to Catholicism inspired him to the Augustinian semiotics in sacramental terms. The [phenomenological] signs that mediate our consciousness with the world in postliberal theology are absorbed, in light of the Catholic emphasis, in the cosmological/Christological sacramental theology, hence making the ecclesial liturgy we partake in even more public and strategic in nature.

This move is strategically needed because the demonian powers cheat us through deception on the reality (per Karl Barth, all men are elected in Christ, but people who are abducted by sin have been deceived [by Satan] so as to falsify their salvation and live in falsehood). In Augustinian terms, demonian powers are to be set against the deprivation of good (evil is the lack of good as opposed to some attribute that can stand on its own), and hence the deprivation of truth and reality. We engage them thus not by playing their vanity power games (which would eventually end up in non-real and non-truth) but through praying for our rulers and proclaim the victory of Christ exclusive of which there is no other truth.

While evil is not ontologically real given the Christocentric cosmology, the demons aka fallen angels areontologically real becausey the WERE the angelic beings, and the angelic beings derive their existence from the being and acts of Christ. We participate in their sanctifying ministry (that sings holy holy holy of God’s glory) through substantial engagement of sacraments (Eucharist), which are means of mediation (through transubstantiation) that link us with Christ’s reality and empower us in our this-worldly endeavor for sanctification of the creation/holiness.

Cynthia Rigby (another very fine Barthian Presbyterian female liberationist) then supplements what Pecknold just lays out above with a cogent understanding of Augustine’s language of evil and heavenly bodies: The angels did not become evil…they frame their existence through and look toward things that are not properly God, which then turn out to be evil., and the fallen angel turn into demonic beings accordingly. The demons are not evil proper, because evil has no real being, while these fallen angels are real beings, and in our phenomenological framework they are experienced and projected as the individual manifestations and personifications of evil.

Though such a move is counterintuitive (because we are supposed to see God’s omnipresence as an important attribute in our Christian living and theology, and God’s absence/hidden-ness as a serious theological category is usually undermined), but liberation theologian Gutierrez reminds us that it is appropriate to cry out “God, why have you forsaken me”—psalms of lament— in times of crisis in order to be reminded that God’s presence actually has substantial aspects— the divine “nein” against ‘vanity’ and ‘falsehood.’

Chad Pecknold on his disagreement with Ephraim Radner (the Jensonian strand of postliberal theology):

Radner is renowned for his theological denounciation of the current denominational and parochial schisms as the sorry state of the body of Christ, which should render every communion we share and taste sour and bitter. But moreover, he regards this bitterness and sorry state of the [earthly] church to be as intrinsic as the finitude of humanity. Namely, this earthly division among « Simul iustus et peccatorum » (‘simultaneously justified and sinners’) could be perfectly solved in the amillennial or post-millennial sense.

Ephraim Radner (Professor at Toronto School of Theology at The University of Toronto) sat on the 2013 AAR panel at Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mu-tien Chiou)

The theological insight Radner has allows he to undergird and read the division of the churches back onto the very first Christian disciple communities, that is, the Judas vs. Peter dialectic. Peter betrayed Jesus but he was redeemed, while Judas betrayed Jesus and he wasn’t.

That fact that there is division and un-redeemed betrayal in the very earliest believing community means that , according to Radner, the wound in Christ’s body (which was somehow physically attributable to the disciples’ betrayal) is intrinsic and leaves scars that render « imperfect » Jesus’ own suffering body and the church that formally and historically resultant from the twelve disciples (without neglecting the role of the Holy Spirit- see Ephraim Radner, The End of the Church).

In short, the Christological wounded body is a reality our churches have to bear until ‘the perfecting of the church’ took place in the eschaton, while current ecumenical movement has been drifted away by its mixed ideological undercurrents which render the movement a « spent force. »

Joining in the Catholic family, Pecknold naturally sees Radner’s interpretation (of the narrative and of the current ecumenical efforts) too tragic with insufficient motif in siding with ‘Peter’ as the first pope and participating in the Eucharist as the symbol for ecumenism.

Even though as an evangelical protestant, I have slightly more sympathy for Radner’s view, but I am happy to let the tension stays as I think this is a very healthy dialectic within postliberal theology.


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