Knox/Robinson for today (extended)

This is the original, longer version of the edited article that appeared in print.

1. Dealing with a theological legacy

There are three common mistakes when dealing with the legacy of previous generations, whether it is in the area of theology or any other endeavour. The first is uncritical acceptance, where all that was said or done by the great ones who have gone before us is treated as so true and perfect that none of it can be questioned. Some confessional theology can be like that. I remember listening to a series of addresses on baptism in which the constant refrain was “the Reformed faith teaches…” Now I’m happy to identify myself as standing within the Reformed tradition of theology, but after about the fifth address (there were twelve!) you couldn’t help but wonder whether this system was so set in stone that it would be impossible to question it on the basis of the Bible. I had the impression that to do so would be considered a betrayal of Calvin, or Turretin, or Hodge or Warfield and what they have bequeathed to us. And yet each one of those men would have rushed to protest that their own teaching needed to be tested by the one true standard of doctrine, the teaching of the Scriptures. Now if you think that is just typical of the conservative edge of the Reformed tradition, I’ve heard people do similar things with the theology of Karl Barth. Barth’s theology sometimes seems to be made of Teflon—no criticism is allowed to stick. But Barth himself famously spoke of how the angels laughed at those who spend more time thinking about what Barth said than about what God has said. That’s the first mistake to make when considering the legacy of the great ones who have gone before us.

The second mistake is the polar opposite of the first: blanket repudiation. From time to time an almost arrogant preoccupation with novelty appears to take hold of academic theologians and echoes through the teaching of pastors and into the churches. It is sometimes justified by an appeal to the very different circumstances of our time. “We can’t afford to think that way any more” or “That made sense in their day but today, in a world they could scarcely have imagined, we’ve been given a much broader perspective”—you’ll recognize the sentiment, I’m sure. We’re much better at identifying the impact of contemporary circumstances on the theologies of the past than recognizing the way our own context shapes and perhaps distorts our theology. Of course, sometimes the appeal is far less sophisticated than that: “What would they know?” Not that long ago, really, I was talking with a friend about a book on preaching that had just been published. His immediate reaction was “But every one of the contributors is over 50!” That apparently rendered the book irrelevant in today’s climate. Whatever the justification, whether thought-through or just basic and instinctive, the end result is the same. In order to move forward we must move on. Let the past remain the past. And so we attach labels to the theology we are leaving behind in order to distinguish ourselves from those who have gone before: the old evangelicalism, Old Princeton, older orthodoxy, neo-orthodoxy, fundamentalist doctrines of Scripture, the Knox-Robinson doctrine of the church.

The third mistake stands somewhere between uncritical acceptance and blanket repudiation. It is a particular type of selective appropriation. Of course, all appropriation of teaching handed on to us is selective to one extent or another. We’re never merely carbon copies of our teachers—even if we try to be—and that, I’d argue, is a very good thing. But the kind of selective appropriation I’m thinking of here happens when we think we are passing on what we’ve heard and yet, by missing out critical elements of that doctrine or practice, we in fact pass on, at best a variation and at worst a parody, of what was said or done.

Perhaps the most obvious example is penal substitutionary atonement. In our haste to get to the cross and our desire to explain as simply as possible what was actually happening there, we can gloss over the critical identity of the one who “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24). God takes our sin with all its consequences and places them upon Jesus of Nazareth so that we may go free. Yet without identifying Jesus as the Christ, this transfer seems arbitrary and unjust. Without identifying him as God the Son incarnate, we give the impression that an innocent third party is drawn into the transaction, which raises even more questions. The charges of cosmic injustice and cosmic child abuse may well be ridiculous, but you can see how they are fed by a failure to make clear that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). At the cross God himself bore our sin and exhausted all its consequences, including and especially death, so that we might stand in the right with him and have life. In all the best explanations of penal substitutionary atonement down through the centuries, the identity of the substitute has been critical. If that is not in clear focus, we might think we are teaching penal substitution—simply, clearly, boldly—but we are in fact teaching something far less compelling.

This kind of selective reading and teaching—the kind that can end up distorting what we’ve been given by those who came before us—is, I suspect, often unconscious. We don’t realize that’s what we’re doing. We think we are teaching penal substitutionary atonement, we think we are operating within the confessional bounds of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, we think we are maintaining a high view of Scripture, only to find that we have glossed over or ignored the heart of the matter. We think we’ve just wrapped the gift differently, when what we’ve wrapped is not what we thought it was.

Now, there are, in fact, elements of truth in each of these false trails. Appreciating that we’re not the first people to seek to evangelize a hostile pagan nation, not the first to think through what church is all about in such a context, not the first to seek to let a robust biblical theology shape all that we do and teach, might seem like common sense, but it is something we need to be reminded of just at the moment. Yet that appreciation can’t afford to be uncritical. All that we do and think needs to be tested against the teaching of Scripture, not just once but again and again. Even our heroes can make mistakes. Martin Luther has been a longstanding hero of mine. He stood against all the might and majesty of the empire and the Roman Catholic Church and refused to budge from the teaching of Scripture. Yet what on earth was he thinking when he wrote what he did about the Jews?1 And so there are times when the teaching of Scripture requires us to move decisively away from elements of the teaching of those we more generally admire. They, like us, were always to one extent or another products of their time, even when all they were trying to do was teach the Bible. And so there is a place for selective appropriation, based on a prior commitment to the ultimate authority of Scripture. Yet such conclusions and considered decisions are quite different from claiming to teach what has been taught before while in truth only teaching part of it.

How does all this relate to the doctrine of church in the diocese of Sydney in the early twenty-first century? The second half of the twentieth century saw the rise of a confident evangelical voice in Sydney, led by men like Howard Mowll, TC Hammond, Marcus Loane, Broughton Knox and Donald Robinson. None of them believed they were doing something distinctive, developing a school of thought or anything like that. In fact there were subtle but substantial differences between each of them. To this day Donald Robinson, perhaps a little mischievously, insists he doesn’t know what people mean when they speak of the Sydney doctrine of the church or the Knox-Robinson doctrine of the church. He and the others thought they were just helping us all to think through what the Bible was actually saying. Nevertheless, observers have often remarked on a distinctive approach to the nature and purpose of church amongst Sydney Anglicans and its source is undoubtedly the teaching of Donald Robinson and Broughton Knox at Moore College from the early 1950s until the early 1980s.

So the question becomes, how should we respond to the theological legacy of Donald Robinson and Broughton Knox on the church nearly thirty years after the last piece written by either of them on the subject? Is their legacy beyond criticism? Should we simply consider it a relic of our past and move on? Or is there room for a critical appreciation that appropriates their insights for a new era, without the kind of selection that distorts the entire package? I think I could fairly point to all three of the mistakes I’ve identified being made by some of those who have followed them. The way forward, it seems to me, is to look more carefully at what they wanted to show us from the Scriptures, understand the context in which they were writing and the biblical theology which kept them from being simply products of their age and nothing more.

Paper jam!

2. Locating Knox and Robinson on the church

In 1987 Donald Robinson wrote an article that examined his contribution to discussions about the nature and purpose of church and provided his own assessment of its critical context.2 He drew particular attention to the ecumenical movement that had gained momentum in the years following the Second World War, and to the debates leading up to the adoption of a constitution for the Church of England in Australia (as it was then called) in 1962. Both ‘movements’, as he remembered, were making grand claims about ‘the church’, which he and Broughton Knox believed to be seriously flawed and insufficiently disciplined by the explicit teaching of Scripture. A preoccupation with structural unity and a misappropriation of the theological dignity and the privileges associated with the local congregation of believers had led spokesmen in both movements into serious error which (like all genuine serious theological error) carried with it serious consequences.

The difficulties associated with the ecumenism epitomized by the World Council of Churches were recognized by others, of course. Karl Barth wrote for the first WCC Assembly in 1948 in a way that set him apart from many of the other participants.

The Church is neither the invisible fellowship, nor the visible community of all those who believe in Christ; nor is it a monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic form of the latter. The Church is the ‘event’ in which two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ, i.e. in the power of his calling and commission. Church order is concerned exclusively with this event, with the living congregation itself.

The primary, normal and visible form of this event is the local congregation, meeting in a ‘parish’ or ‘district’ with clearly defined boundaries. Such a local congregation is constituted by the possibility and the actuality of regular public worship, i.e. common worship at which the Atonement made by Jesus is proclaimed, as the ground of our hope. The Church lives (she is) in this visible, concrete transaction (prayer, confession of faith, Baptism, Lord’s Supper, the proclamation and reception of the Gospel) and in its presuppositions (theology, training of the young) and its consequences (brotherly discipline, pastoral care and other oversight). The Church lives (she actually is) in the form of a local congregation, which is the basis of all other forms of her life.3

Barth was making a plea for the priority of the local congregation over the kind of denominational unity being sought by many in the World Council of Churches. Characteristically, he spoke of event rather than structures, the concrete living assembly rather than abstract theological concepts. As Jesus Christ calls such groups of people together, the proclamation of his atoning death is at the very centre of their corporate life: they are the living, breathing result of the great commission.

Around the same time, Alan Stibbs, then Vice Principal at Oak Hill Theological College in London, wrote a piece for the Inter-Varsity Magazine in which he worked more closely with the text of the New Testament to provide a response to what was going on. His conclusion might seem surprising, coming from an Englishman (and an evangelical Anglican at that) writing in 1950.

To sum up the two sides of our Lord’s teaching about the church, we may say, on the one hand, that the one great church of God exists invisibly in the heavenly places. It is to Christians an object of faith, not of sight. On the other hand, the only thing that exists visibly in the world as an earthly counterpart to this heavenly fellowship is the local churches, the meeting together in many places of those who profess the faith of Christ… It is, therefore, surely of some significance that the New Testament writers never use the word ‘church’ in the singular to suggest one great visible earthly organization. In contrast to any such idea, the Apostle Paul speaks deliberately and in some ways very surprisingly in the plural of ‘the churches’… There is, therefore, no scriptural ground for looking for the emergence of one ecumenical or worldwide church as a visible earthly organization, having, like an earthly empire, a geographical centre and a human head.4

Stibbs, like Barth, saw the priority of the local congregation but he took this further. He identified the local church as the visible counterpart of the heavenly fellowship of all believers gathered around Christ.

So some of the key ideas associated in later years with Knox and Robinson were circulating among evangelicals in England in the early 1950s. Robinson had returned to Australia from his theological studies in Cambridge by that stage, but he had encountered the ecumenical debates at the inaugural meeting of the IFES at Harvard in 1947 and the doctrine of the church had been a special focus of his study at Cambridge under the supervision of CFD Moule.5 Knox arrived back in England in 1951 where he would spend the next three years researching early Anglican theology. During that time he would consolidate an existing friendship with Alan Stibbs and other leading English evangelicals, becoming intimately acquainted with the arguments relied upon by the ecumenical movement.

The other catalyst identified by Robinson was the slow and tortuous path towards a constitution for what is now known as the Anglican Church of Australia.6 Of particular concern here was the way the emerging national structures were referred to as ‘the church’. Robinson insisted that “theologically speaking, a body like the Church of England in Australia was simply not a church in any sense in which ekklesia is used in the New Testament”.7 So when the draft constitution opened with the words “The Church of England in Australia, being part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ…”, Robinson protested that there had been “a confusion of categories”. Knox too called for greater theological discipline. Here, as they saw it, was the ecumenical problem, just on a smaller scale. The biblical picture of a gathering of disciples around Christ in the Spirit, attending to Christ’s word and serving each other, was being replaced by an institutional approach to ecclesiology.

There were undoubtedly other factors at play as well. Chief among these, as we shall see in a moment, was the development of a distinctive approach to biblical theology arising from Robinson’s ‘special doctrine’ lectures at Moore College in 1954. As he would later write, “the course quickly developed into an introduction to the theology of the Bible as a whole” in which “’the church’ as such was subsumed under the wider theme of God’s creative purpose for Adam, his promise to Abraham and his seed, the elect people of Israel and the promise to the nations beyond and through Israel”.8 The distinctive features of the doctrine of the church as they emerged in Sydney in these years were not entirely the product of polemics and ecclesiastical politics—indeed the biblical theology course owed a lot to Robinson’s creative interaction with the work of Gabriel Hebert, an English monk stationed with the Society of the Sacred Mission in Adelaide. Yet the engine room remained the stimulating relationship between Robinson and Knox, life-long friends and colleagues at Moore College from 1950 until 1974. Knox’s own larger theological concerns, arising from reflection upon the being of God and the character of the life of faith, added a depth of ontology to the discussion which could never simply be reduced to debate within Australian Anglicanism or international ecumenism either.

So what was it that these two iconic figures in Sydney Anglicanism had to say about the nature and function of ‘the church’, and how might their insights enable us to be more biblical in our thinking and in our practice? Donald Robinson has insisted that he and Broughton were doing slightly different things, despite the common ground others have so readily identified. That observation alone justifies treating their contributions separately before returning to the question of Knox/Robinson for today.

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3. Donald Robinson on the church

One of the most striking features of Robinson’s doctrine of the church is the way in which it is embedded in his biblical theology and clearly related to one of his other concerns, the relationship of Jew and Gentile in the New Testament. An article from 1962, which was only published much more recently and entitled ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Church’, actually begins with a simple outline of the main theme of the Bible.9 Human rebellion resulted in expulsion from the Garden and necessitated a rescue and restoration, which can only be achieved in Jesus Christ. So what the Old Testament looked forward to is fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus in the New Testament. This outline is filled out in a way that makes clear the critical importance of the notion of ‘gathering’. God’s purposes are enacted in history, in the life and death of the nation of Israel. God chose Israel and gathered her around himself, first at Sinai and then at the temple. But Israel’s unfaithfulness, chronicled in detail in the Old Testament, results in removal from the temple and the Promised Land and a scattering among the nations. Even the return from exile is overshadowed by a sense of loss compared with what had been. Nevertheless God’s promise and his intention to gather a people to himself is not abandoned. It is reiterated as the object of the prophetic hope: “Israel will one day know God, all people will come to God’s Temple on Mount Zion, and God’s rule will be over all peoples in peace”.10 This in turn is fulfilled on two levels in the New Testament: in Christ and in his Church. Jesus is himself the suffering servant and the ‘seed’ of Abraham; but it is as the Lord that he calls ‘the twelve’ and commissions them to go to the end of the earth making disciples. Indeed it is the confession of Jesus’ Lordship which unites those who come to him from Israel and from the nations.

The prominence of this biblical theology, most striking in this paper but a feature of his other treatments of the subject as well, is highly significant. It forms a broader context for his study of the word ekklesia in the New Testament. It is hard to justify the oft-repeated charge that this entire way of thinking about church is based on a very narrow Greek word study. It is just as hard to justify the suggestion that this approach to church, with its accent on the local gathering, is simply another expression of the rampant individualism which has infected Western society and so the Western churches for at least the last two hundred years, and with renewed force since the 1960s. The physical gathering of God’s people has always been close to the centre of God’s purposes. God gathers his people, not just in theory, not in some ideal, abstract sense, but really in the concrete particulars of time, space and culture.

A second feature of Robinson’s approach is the central place of his affirmation that ‘the church is where Christ is’. In a paper published three years earlier than the one we have been considering, he argues:

The church is where Christ is. On earth, that is where two or three are gathered together in His name (Matt 18:20); in heaven, it is where He is, seated at the right hand of the throne of God and sings praise to the Father (‘in the midst of the church’, Heb 2:12).11

This idea that the gathering is not just a meeting of believers with each other, but of believers together and with Christ in their midst is a constant feature of Robinson’s work in this area. It is there in just about every piece he wrote on the subject.

Around this figure, the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ and ‘Servant’, the ‘Temple not made with hands’, in Whom all Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled, disciples gather.12

‘Church’ is not a synonym for ‘people of God’; it is rather an activity of the ‘people of God’… i.e. the people assembled with Christ in the midst (Matt 18:20; Heb 2:12)13

In the Old Testament, the ekklesia of Israel, that is, its meeting together, is called the ekklesia of the Lord (qehal YHWH), because it was God who called it together and whose presence was its constituent factor… The church was the people of Israel, not as scattered throughout the land, but as gathered together by God and under His lordship. In the New Testament ‘the church’ is no longer the assembly of Israel, though the pattern is provided by the Old Testament church. Jesus says: ‘I will build My Church’ (Matt 16:18). The church is still an assembly of people. But it is Jesus who convenes and constitutes it…14

This is clearly not just an incidental feature in Robinson’s understanding of the church. The church is not simply a gathering of Christians but a gathering around Christ, present by his Spirit and addressing his people through his Word. The common criticism of the ‘Knox/Robinson doctrine of the church’ as purely horizontal, concerned only with the edification of each other and with no ‘vertical’ dimension as it were, is a valid criticism only of a caricature of this position. An immense theological dignity and awesome privilege is accorded the local congregation precisely because it is Christ’s gathering of his people around himself. This means the local congregation, weak and feeble though it may seem, is immensely significant. Whatever circumstances we recognize have brought us together in a particular place and at a particular time, Robinson’s point is that such gatherings are ‘convened and constituted by Christ’—the living Christ whose presence constitutes the gathering. This is why his appeal is so consistently to Matthew 18:20 (“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”) and to Hebrews 2:12 with its quote from Psalm 22 (“I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise”).

Another feature of Robinson’s ecclesiology has already been mentioned in passing. This is his call for care in the use of New Testament terminology. In the context of ecumenical discussion, he is acutely aware of the tendency of some to apply biblical terms to entities the New Testament never envisaged. It surfaced again in the discussions about a constitution for the Church of England in Australia. Robinson later recalled,

I had no objection to the use of the title Church of England as such; it had grown up through long usage and everyone knew what it referred to. But it seemed important not to transfer to this national or denominational structure prerogatives and dignities which belonged to the ekklesia of God as that term is used in the Bible…15

At the time, this concerned for the proper use of biblical language and concepts formed the basis of a warning.

Let us take heed that we do not despise the true ‘church of God’ (1 Cor 11:22), or give it any occasion of stumbling (1 Cor 10:32). We will certainly be in danger of this if we exalt ecumenism, or denominationalism, or diocesanism above the unity of the local church, forgetting that Jesus builds His church only where men confess Him as Lord (Matt 16:16-18:20).16

But this care in the use of ekklesia and other biblical terminology was not just demanded of the ecumenical movement. Robinson’s point had a more general application. Just as New Testament language of ‘church’ and all associated with it cannot be used in an unqualified way of larger institutional structures, whether they be denominational or trans-denominational, without compromising the very heart of what is indicated by the language, so it ought not to be used more generally of Christians as they are dispersed in their everyday lives. Robinson insisted on a careful distinction between ‘church’ and ‘the people of God’. Though this distinction would lead to him being accused later of conceptually isolating the notion of ‘church’—a danger he was willing to admit was real—that was not his intention at all and he was quite willing to defend himself against the charge.17 His point was clear in his New Bible Dictionary article from 1962:

‘Church’ is not a synonym for ‘people of God’; it is rather an activity of the ‘people of God’. Images such as ‘aliens and exiles’ (1 Pet 2:11) apply to the people of God in the world, but do not describe the church, i.e. the people assembled with Christ in the midst (Matt 18:20; Heb 2:12).18

The ‘event’ imagery of Barth from 1948 comes to mind. Robinson’s point was made sharper by his description of the life of the earthly church as ‘intermittent’. This stands in contrast to the heavenly church which is gathered around Christ where he is, at the right hand of the Father.

An important distinction now needs to be drawn between the church in its heavenly aspect and the church in its earthly aspect. Not only is the church on earth multiform, that is, it may be seen wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name; but it is also intermittent and not continuous in character, since every meeting involves the necessity of dispersal… The Church in heaven, on the other hand, is uniform, existing only in one place, and it is a continuous assembly, offering perpetual praise as it hears without intermission the name and glory of God declared in its midst by Christ.19

In the light of subsequent criticisms, it is important to stress that he was not in anyway discounting the significance of Christian identity and activity outside of this activity of ‘gathering’. He recognized ‘concepts of continuance’ in the New Testament, including “continuance in the relationship established between Christians by their coming together ‘in church’, but”, he argued, “such continuance is not coextensive with the activity of church”.20 He also recognized the importance and the biblical mandate for “a world-wide mission of the gospel and of saints in every place calling on the name of the Lord”—for him the only strictly ecumenical concepts in the New Testament.21 There were and are other highly significant activities that Christians are engaged in. Witness, evangelism and taking the gospel to the community stand out among them. But these ought not to be confused with ‘church’, which is something very particular: the gathering of those called by Christ, meeting with each other and with Christ in their midst in order that, as the church, they might be built in love (Eph 4:16). We will need to return to this last point as we consider the challenge of Robinson’s observation to the early twenty-first century practice of church.

I’ve concentrated on just three features of Robinson’s understanding of the Bible’s teaching on church: its place within a broad biblical-theological framework; the central truth of Christ’s presence in the midst of his people, whether gathered around the throne in heaven or gathered in local communities on earth; and his call for care in the use of the biblical language of ekklesia with all that that implies. There is much more that can be said, perhaps that should be said to give a full picture of what Donald Robinson was teaching about the church. In particular I have not really developed the notion of genuine ‘unity’, which Robinson developed from the New Testament. But I want to leave some time to speak briefly about the contribution of Broughton Knox.

4. Broughton Knox on the church

Though he taught about church in his doctrine classes at Moore College and wrote a preliminary piece on ‘The Church in the Old Testament’ back in 1950, most of Broughton Knox’s published writing on church is later than that of Donald Robinson, dating from the 1970s and 1980s. No doubt there were many other speeches and addresses on the subject, especially surrounding the debates about the Anglican constitution, and countless unattributed editorials in The Australian Church Record. However, it is interesting to note the shift between his article on the church in 1950 and the pieces he published in the 1970s. What is most noticeable is his clear adoption of much of the exegetical argument of Donald Robinson. The influence of Robinson’s work is unmistakable but we ought not to conclude that Knox simply rehearsed his colleague’s conclusions. He added elements of his own to the exposition of the doctrine which were very significant indeed.

As I mentioned earlier, Knox’s real contribution lies in the way he integrated Robinson’s exegetical conclusions with larger theological concerns. These, characteristically, had to do with the character of God and his sovereign purposes. So while Robinson emphasized the priority of the local congregation over denominational and ecumenical structures—importantly, without denying the validity of the former, just as long as these were not confused with ‘church’ as the New Testament used the term—Knox himself emphasized the ultimate priority of the heavenly assembly. Reflecting upon Hebrews 12 (and later, the argument of Ephesians and Colossians), he wrote in 1970

We are participants in the group or gathering around God’s throne which Christ is forming in the presence of God. This is the basic use in the New Testament of the word ‘church’.22

Knox repeatedly anchored the priority of the heavenly gathering which Hebrews 12 speaks about in the words of Jesus from Matthew 16:18 (a text he once described as “the most important passage in Scripture about the church”).23 Jesus promised to gather his church around himself (“at this rock”), much as in Exodus 19:4 God spoke of having gathered Israel to himself at Mount Sinai. However, since Jesus is now in heaven, seated on the throne at God’s right hand, it is there first and foremost that Jesus gathers them24 The church is most basically a spiritual gathering which draws its life from the work of the life-giving Spirit in the life of each Christian person—the eternal reality of fellowship with God and so with each other.25

This does not mean he devalued the earthly church in the interests of securing the priority of the heavenly church. On the contrary, he insisted that each local congregation is the necessary physical manifestation of this fellowship which we share now with Christ in heaven. This fellowship “if it is to be expressed between ourselves while we still remain in the body in this physical world, must involve meeting”.26 The reality that we have been gathered by Christ, raised with him, seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6), that we “are come” (to use the KJV’s words) ‘to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (Heb 12:23) must find expression in our lives on earth.

Being in the heavenly church, that is to say, being in fellowship with God and one another through the gospel, involves being in fellowship with one another in a physical visible assembly or meeting. Now the heavenly and the earthly are not two fellowships, or two gatherings, one unseen, the other local and visible, but they are the same fellowship both heavenly in God’s presence and at the same time local and physical because we live in a physical environment27

It should be clear that Knox did not consider the local gathering of Christians something optional. Membership of a local congregation may not constitute our Christian identity but neither is it optional or dispensable. He repeatedly used the language of necessity in connection with the local church.

We are all in each other’s company in Christ’s presence. The Spirit of God in each of us creates this heavenly church, and draws us into each other’s company to meet with Christ in each other, to form the local gathering or church or congregation (the words all mean the same). This local church is the necessary expression of the heavenly reality. We are all together in one place because we all share the one Spirit. It is indeed the fellowship of the Spirit.28

To speak of us being present with Christ and each other in heaven while also being present with each other gathered around Christ in the local congregation was not pure Platonism as some have charged. It was rather an attempt to do justice to the reality of fellowship with God in Christ now—using the language the New Testament uses to describe that fellowship (“the church of the firstborn”)—and to the dignity and privileges which the New Testament also accords to the church on earth. In addition Knox was providing a critically important observation about the relation of these two biblical descriptions. This is nowhere more clear than in Knox’s insistence that

It is not future anticipation of which the writer [of Hebrews] is speaking but present reality… We are already citizens of the heavenly family. We are already in Christ; already in heaven, though still on earth waiting for the redemption of our bodies. In part, we have died and our life is hid with Christ in God; in part, we still belong on earth and need to put to death our earthly members. Through Christ we have come into the Father’s presence and are members of his household. We are already in heaven, this is our present situation not merely a future hope. We are already at present citizens of a heavenly city (Phil 3:20), a heavenly household (Eph 2:20), a heavenly church (Heb 12:23).29

The heavenly gathering is an eschatological concept, true, but not in the sense of a reality that comes into existence only at the consummation. The heavenly gathering is the controlling reality of Christian corporate experience now. This reality expresses itself on earth in the interim between Jesus’ ascension and his return, and while our fellowship with God in Christ will be “manifestly deepened at the parousia”, it does not become ‘real’ only then.30 So local gatherings of Christians are not simply an accident of history. Nor are they simply a pragmatic necessity—a means to some other end. A deeper reality, bound to God’s eternal purpose and our identity as Christ’s people, necessitates the manifestation of this heavenly reality in the physical dimensions of time and space.

One of the larger categories with which Knox was working was that of ‘fellowship’. Later he would express the same ideas with the word ‘relationship’. Fellowship, or relationship, is not simply a romantic notion, not simply a sociological category. It is, rather, the basic reality of the universe. Here Knox brought the doctrine of the Trinity to bear, long before it became fashionable to do so. As God is relational in his own being, so relationality is a critical feature of those created in his image and finds proper expression in the Christian assembly.

God is ultimate reality and God is Trinity, three persons in one. The Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son and the Spirit is in both. Ultimate reality, God, is persons in relationship. Thus there is no experience more ultimate than personal relationship, nor more blissful, for this is how God’s being is, and God is ultimate blissfulness.31

This observation that Christian relationships are in some sense reflective of God’s eternal triune relations—an observation which lay at the heart of his theology—led him to insist on the other-person-centred character of Christian fellowship. The Trinitarian relations are other-centred. The Father draws attention to the Son, the Son seeks the glory of the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. God is no narcissist. He is not turned in on himself but each person of the Trinity finds a focus of existence and activity in the others. Christian fellowship finds its proper pattern here. Selfless preoccupation with the welfare of each other—in ultimate terms the salvation and maturity of other men and women—characterizes the gathered people of God.

Thus church is Christian fellowship. Like all fellowship it requires as a sine qua non ‘other-person-centredness’, that is, being genuinely interested in the other person as a person, and, in particular, as a Christian person. It will require communication, talking to each other in Christian things, in the things of faith and hope in Christ. Christian church fellowship means not only talking together, but doing together Christian things such as praising, praying, and thanking God. Our fellowship is not only directed towards God, but also towards one another, building one another up as Christians.32

Of course, in the face of the real and continuing human sinfulness, our reflection of God’s other-person-centred relations is always imperfect. Joy and suffering are most intense in the area of personal relationships precisely because relationships are so important.

At times Knox could express the importance of the fellowship between those gathered by Christ in ways which, if isolated from the rest of his exposition of the doctrine, might seem to sit oddly with the nature of church as Robinson had expounded it from the New Testament. For example,

The reason for coming to church cannot primarily be in order that we might pray, for normally we pray privately, entering into our room and closing the door, as Jesus told us to. Nor can it primarily be to hear God’s word, for we read and meditate on it at home, where these days we may also listen to tapes of the world’s best preachers and expositors [substitute ‘download the latest podcast’].33

Taken in isolation, such a comment might seem to express a purely ‘horizontal’ approach to church. It is our fellowship with each other, perhaps our concern for the spiritual welfare of each other, which is the distinguishing mark of the local congregation. Talk of meeting with God or meeting with Christ in his word seems to have slipped into the background. However, Knox never failed to emphasize the presence of Christ amongst his gathered people and the orientation of the gathering to the Lord who speaks to his people through his word.

We who are members of Christ’s church should lift our thoughts to where Christ is, and remember that the purpose of Christ’s gathering us in his presence is for fellowship with him and with one another by our hearing his voice which comes to us in the preaching of the gospel within that fellowship...34

More pointedly, he could speak about the fellowship being ‘God-facing’ and, precisely because of the nature and purposes of the God who stands at its centre, also world-facing.

The relationship in Christ is God-facing, it is fellowship with God and his work in the world. God faces the world in saving love, and in him we face the world in saving love (i.e. in evangelism and works of charity and moral witness to the society). Christian fellowship cannot be turned in on itself, for it is the fellowship of God’s Spirit. It includes the whole world, as God does. His tender mercies are over all his works. He so loves the world.35

We might discern a slight difference of emphasis between Knox and Robinson at this point, though both consistently argued that “the visible church has no purpose or mission beyond being the church, that is, being the fellowship of Christ’s people”.36 Knox’s concern, however, was to insist that it is not just some abstract notion of God and fellowship with him which determines the character of the local congregation, but this God, the God who is concerned for the salvation of men and women and for the recreation of the world, and who has acted decisively to bring this about in Christ.

It is in this wider context that his comments against denominationalism need to be understood. Broughton Knox was not against denominations. He not only was deeply and keenly involved in the denominational structures of the Diocese of Sydney throughout his life but wrote repeatedly of the value of denominations when they operate properly.

Congregations should be in fellowship with one another. They should not act independently of other congregations. Independency is not a Christian concept. It is contrary to God’s nature, and to our nature as he created it. Independency is a contradiction of Christian fellowship. Congregations should not act without respect to other congregations. Denominational structures assist the interdependence of congregations. These links are a natural creation of the fellowship of the Spirit of God. The denomination and its officers have a ministry which is common to all Christians, that is to help, advise, encourage and exhort the congregation and its members.37

Denominations, particularly where there is a plurality of denominations, can be instrumental in protecting freedom of conscience and facilitating genuine, faithful Christian fellowship in each local congregation. However, problems arise when, as happens far too often, these structures, designed to facilitate the life of the local congregation, begin to identify themselves as ‘the church’. He insisted, “denominations are not churches, but are service structures to assist congregations which are real churches”.38 Denominationalism is that attitude which finds an alternative focus for allegiance in the denomination itself and Knox famously wrote an article for the Australian Church Record entitled ‘The Sin of Denominationalism’. The most destructive form of denominationalism is coercion exercised from outside the local congregation in order to ensure the congregation serves the programs and policies of the denomination. Knox was emphatic on this point:

Centralized control outside the congregation extinguishes the gospel within the congregation in due course. History confirms this truth abundantly. Even the smallest degree of control has this effect in the long run, for experience shows that the centre, when given control of the congregation, over the decades increases it, aiming and uniformity and obedience. But the gospel rocks the boat of the denomination!39

5. Knox/Robinson for today

I’ve spent the bulk of my time this evening unpacking the key elements in the doctrine of the church as expounded by Broughton Knox and Donald Robinson because it seems to me that what we need most is a fuller understanding of what they actually taught. Too much is said about their teaching on the basis of second-hand reports rather than serious and extensive engagement with even just their published work, let alone the more scattered material such as synod addresses, newspaper editorials and class lecture notes. On occasion the Knox/Robinson position is parodied as simply all about the priority of the local congregation over larger denominational structures based entirely on a lexical study of the Greek word ekklesia. Thankfully more extensive explorations of their ecclesiological contribution are underway.

However, as I close I do want to outline five ways in which their teaching might intersect with questions many of us have been wrestling with. Perhaps we can tease these out in the question time.

Church is a quite particular activity of the people of God.

There are lots of other things we can do as the people of God, but they are not church and to confuse them with church is to lose sight of what the church exists to do. Strictly speaking, there are only two things that the church as church is said to do in the New Testament. The first is to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15). Put another way it is to be “built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:19–22). The second is to be the instrument through which “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). This happens as Jews and Gentiles and people from vastly different backgrounds, social networks, age groups and personality types come together in genuine fellowship and love. So a critical question for us to ask ourselves is whether recent developments in our practice of ‘church’ promote or hinder either of these things. Is what we do when we gather really helping Christian men and women grow to maturity in Christ? For instance, the homogeneous unit principle might be an effective evangelistic strategy but is it an appropriate rationale for a local congregation of God’s people? How does it allow a genuine oneness of mind and heart, despite our variety in background, education, skill, culture and age grouping, to attest the manifold wisdom of God?

Church is not oriented towards outsiders, unbelievers or seekers.

It is not first and foremost an evangelistic rally, or a discussion group for comparative religion, apologetics or contemporary ethics. Church is the gathering of those who are already in Christ. It is not designed for outsiders but for insiders, even if it is always an open and public gathering which welcomes outsiders. Some of our contemporary confusion about what we do when we come together, it seems to me, arises from a failure to observe the important distinction between being intelligible to outsiders and being oriented towards outsiders. Paul expected that an outsider might enter the assembly at Corinth and understand what was being said. But he did not expect that all that was being done would be oriented towards the outsider, calculated to remove all that might seem strange to the outsider, or even designed so that the outsider might anonymously observe and feel more comfortable. Of course we should recognize the danger of alienating those who visit our churches with obscure language, unexplained rituals and general insensitivity or rudeness. However, the outsider is visiting or entering a fellowship that has a particular character that marks itself out from other gatherings. Not all ‘strangeness’ is bad, especially when we consider how distant our contemporary culture has become from gospel priorities. The desire in some circles to transform church into something which resembles other gatherings (theatres, cafes, etc.) needs a better justification than it is often given.

There is a premium on relationships.

 Since God himself is deeply relational and that relationality is profoundly other-centred, and since we are created to live as his image, the relationships between those who are gathered as Christ’s people are critically important. Such relationships are not simply a means to an end and they can’t be reduced to a strategic objective. Genuine relationships take time and the realities of loving people in the midst of broken world means that sometimes apparently more strategic commitments need to be put aside. People must have a priority over programs. Walking with each other and helping each other grow into maturity in Christ requires more than a superficial interaction. The prominence of the language of love in the New Testament—love patterned on the sacrifice of Christ no less—ought to challenge contemporary trends towards the professionalization of ministry. We can’t afford to simply ‘talk a good game’ when it comes to the importance of relationships. This Knox/Robinson insight might in fact challenge us to be more deeply immersed in each other’s lives, in marked contrast to the superficiality of ‘social networking’. It will most certainly challenge tendency in some circles to transform what used to be described as ‘common prayer’ into something more akin to a concert or a performance.

Don’t forget the centrepiece: we are gathered by Christ around him.

 Concerns about excessive formality and a narrow focus on simply the individual and God, together with reaction against strangely inverted notions of ‘worship’ (where we are doing something for God or merit something from God) have led some evangelicals to speak about church almost exclusively in terms of our edification of each other. As a corrective in the light of these distortions, the importance of how we relate to each other is emphasized with minimal attention to the presence of Christ in our midst. Yet Knox and Robinson both spoke repeatedly of our meeting with God in his word. They both expected that God’s people would be addressed by the living God himself as his word was proclaimed in the gathering. Broughton Knox famously amended the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism to read “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him in the company of his people forever”. He critiqued the notion of ‘private religion’ and insisted on the necessity of fellowship. But he did not ever relinquish the centrepiece—we meet together with Christ in his Spirit and by means of his word.

Don’t despise denominations but do not fall again into denominationalism.

 The priority of the local congregation in the purposes of God does not mean we should abandon denominational association altogether. It has been all too easy to misread Knox and Robinson as congregationalism pure and simple. However, I am convinced that this is a misreading. And it certainly does not accord with their own practice. They saw denominations as human structures designed to serve the needs of the local congregations. They rejoiced in the evangelical heritage of Anglicanism in particular. When denominations worked well, they fostered interdependence and helped to guard the faithful proclamation of the gospel in each congregation. Yet they knew too that due to the unrelenting human bias towards sin and rebellion, a good and godly heritage could all too easily be transformed into a focus for allegiance which rivals commitment to Christ and to those who are his wherever they may be found. Denominations can acquire a life of their own and seek to coerce all within their association to serve a central agenda. Worse still, throughout the world many mainstream denominational structures have been hijacked by liberal revisionists and so the agenda being pushed is directly counter to the teaching of Scripture (witness the state of Global Anglicanism). So there is a continuing need for caution when it comes to engagement with denominational structures. They have not always served us well. This ought to temper the current fresh appreciation of the evangelical legacy of the Protestant denominations, evidenced by new attention being given by evangelicals to the creeds of the early church and the Reformation confessions. The essential observation of Robinson and Knox that the denomination is not the church (an observation put forward by others as well, as we noted earlier), and that confusion at this point will always undermine gospel mission in the long run, needs to be reiterated just as strongly today.

  1. It is possible to be irresponsible in our criticism of Luther at this point. An appreciation of Luther’s context and what he did in fact say makes clear he is hardly the source of modern anti-Semitism. See my ‘Luther and the Jews’, Reformed Theological Review, vol. 67, no. 3, 2008, pp. 121–145.
  2. Donald Robinson, ‘“The Church” Revisited: An Autobiographical Fragment’, Reformed Theological Review, vol. 48, no. 1, 1989, pp. 4‑14, and reprinted as chapter 21 of Donald Robinson: Selected Works Volume 1, eds. Peter G Bolt & Mark D Thompson, Australian Church Record/Moore College, Sydney, 2008.
  3. Karl Barth, ‘The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ’, in Man’s Disorder and God’s Design. Volume 1: The Universal Church in God’s Design, SCM, London, 1948, p. 73. This passage is cited by Robinson in ‘“The Church” Revisited’, p. 265.
  4. AM Stibbs, ‘The New Testament Teaching Concerning the Church’, reprinted in Such a Great Salvation: Collected Essays of Alan Stibbs, edited by A Atherstone, Mentor, Fearn, 2008, pp. 231-235.
  5. A text he recollected as particularly significant in that study was FJA Hort’s The Christian Ecclesia: A Course of Lectures on the Early History and Early Conceptions of the Ecclesia, and Four Sermons, Macmillan, London, 1897.
  6.  This constitution was debated throughout the 1950s and was finally agreed upon by the General Synod in 1962.
  7. Robinson, ‘Autobiographical Fragment’, p. 267.
  8. ibid., pp. 262-263.
  9. Donald Robinson, ‘The Biblical Doctrine of the Church’, Donald Robinson Selected Works: Volume 1, Assembling God’s People, pp. 205-2011.
  10. Robinson, ‘Biblical Doctrine’, p. 206.
  11. Robinson, ‘The Church in the New Testament’, St Mark’s Review, vol. 17, 1959, pp. 4-5, reprinted as chapter 17 in Donald Robinson: Selected Works Volume 1, p. 213.
  12. Robinson, ‘Biblical Doctrine’, p. 208.
  13. Robinson, ‘Church’, New Bible Dictionary, ed. JD Douglas, IVP, London, 1962, reprinted as chapter 18 in Donald Robinson: Selected Works Volume 1, p. 223.
  14. Robinson, The Church of God: Its Form and Unity, Jordan Books, Punchbowl, 1965, reprinted as chapter 19 of Donald Robinson: Selected Works Volume 1, p. 251.
  15. Robinson, ‘Autobiographical Fragment’, p. 267.
  16. Robinson, Church of God, p. 251.
  17.  Robinson, ‘Autobiographical Fragment’, pp. 268–269.
  18. Robinson, ‘Church’, p. 223.
  19. Robinson, The Church of God, p. 236.
  20. Robinson, The Church of God, p. 236.
  21. Robinson, ‘Church in the New Testament’, p. 212 .
  22. DB Knox, ‘The Church’, Protestant Faith Radio Broadcast, 22 March 1970, reprinted as chapter 2 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, ed. Kirsten Birkett, Matthias Media, Sydney, 2003, p. 20.
  23.  DB Knox, ‘The Church, the Churches and the Denominations of the Churches’, reprinted as chapter 10 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, p. 85.
  24.  Knox, ‘The Church, the Churches and the Denominations of the Churches’, p. 88.
  25. DB Knox, ‘The Spirit, the Church and the Denomination’ Protestant Faith Radio Broadcast, 7 March 1976, reprinted as chapter 4 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, p. 34; ‘The Church, the Churches and the Denominations of the Churches’, p. 89.
  26.  Knox, ‘The Church’, pp. 20–21.
  27. ibid., p. 21.
  28. DB Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, in Explorations 2: Church, Worship and the Local Congregation, ed. BG Webb, Lancer, Sydney, 1987, as chapter 9 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, p. 80.
  29. DB Knox, ‘Demythologising the Church’, Reformed Theological Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 1973, pp. 48-55, as chapter 3 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, pp. 28-29.
  30.  ibid., p. 30.
  31. Knox, ‘The Biblical Concept of Fellowship’, p. 59.
  32. Knox, Fellowship’, p. 80.
  33. Knox, ‘Fellowship’, p. 76.
  34.  Knox, ‘Church’, p. 22.
  35. Knox, ‘Fellowship’, p.81.
  36. Knox, ‘Church, Churches and Denominations’, p. 94.
  37. Knox, ‘Church, Churches and Denominations’, p. 98.
  38.  DB Knox, ‘Christian Unity’, Protestant Faith Radio Broadcast, 26 June 1977, reprinted as chapter 5 in D. Broughton Knox Selected Works: Volume II: Church and Ministry, p. 36.
  39. Knox, ‘Church, Churches and Denominations’, p. 96.

4 thoughts on “Knox/Robinson for today (extended)

  1. Interesting paper!

    Would you mind fixing two little typos, please?

    The first is in 2. Locating Knox and Robinson on the church, 2nd paragraph, 1st line

    Please change Word Council of Churches
    to World Council of Churches

    There’s another in 4. Broughton Knox on the Church, 6th paragraph, block quote:
    It not future anticipation of which the writer [of Hebrews] is speaking

    I assume it should begin with “It is”

    What does “added a depth of ontology to the discussion” mean? Does it mean anything different from “added a depth to the discussion?”

    [“Ontology” makes me bristle. It seems to me that, this sentence excepted, most sentences using the word “ontology” make perfect sense without it.]

    Thanks for this article. It shows that when people attempt to express the Knox-Robinson view of “church,” and make it come out sounding completely horizontal, they are doing a disservice to the view they are attempting to articulate.

    • Thanks for the pick-ups David. Fixed.

      While I’m with you on the use of ‘ontology’ in the main, I think here we’re talking about the technical term which does actually add to the description. The sentence with containing ‘ontology’ refers to the theological concerns of Knox “arising from reflection upon the being of God and the character of the life of faith”.

      That is, the theological depth added by Knox to the discussion plugged in the being of God and the character of what it is to be Christian, so that the discussion couldn’t then just default back to Anglican or ecumenical debate.

  2. Pingback: Tradition and the Doctrine of the Church « Insomniac memos

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