An Empty Vessel: Duane W.H. Arnold
An Empty Vessel
Once there was such a thing as a Regula Fidei, that is to say, there was a rule of faith to which believers subscribed. It could be as basic as the baptismal formula that grew into the Apostles Creed or the orthodox encompassing affirmations of the Nicene Creed. These belong to an era in which we could recognize what the church was and was not. For more than four centuries across a vast geographical expanse, the life of the church and the expression of the church was remarkably similar. Instruction in the faith and baptism was the mode of entry. Life lived in community with others was a given. Gathering together for the Eucharist was the norm. The liturgy and the prayers were remarkably similar whether you were in Rome, or in Gaul, or in Syria. One’s adherence to the Regula Fidei was, in many ways, taken for granted as such an adherence was shared by all.
It appears today as though that is no longer the case. This is not to say that we are without a rule of faith, it just no longer seems to hold importance for many believers. What was once revolutionary is now rote or simply overshadowed by other, more pressing, concerns.
In the modern era it often appears as though the church is what one mIght call an “empty vessel”. As such, it is all too often filled with the personality and/or the preferences of those who are its leaders. Often, unlike a rule of faith, this is expressed in terms of style, more than substance. Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, this is not a malady that is confined to one section of the church or to a particular expression of Christianity. Whether one is a high church ritualist or a low church Chuck Smith devotee, the end result is the same. We shape the church into our own image and likeness. It is not a matter of finding a rule of faith to which we adhere. It is all about finding an expression of the faith that suits our comfort level. Yet, in such a scenario, evangelism is not about seeking the lost, but rather in seeking those who are just like us. This, of course, leads to tribalism and may at least partially explain the situation in which we find ourselves today.
Perhaps, in our celebrity and personality driven culture, this is to be expected. Yet, in looking over the vast expanse of Christian history, we must admit that this is not normal.
The church is not, and was never meant to be “bespoke”, that is, specifically tailored to one’s own desires and point of view. It is not a boutique hotel, set up to cater to the particular interests, politics or prejudices of a certain subset of society at large. This, however, has increasingly become the case in much of American Christianity and, I might say, crosses the aisle and includes both conservatives and progressives within that faith world.
The result of this has been that many people are no longer able to find a home within the church. Often it is the case that one is too liberal to fit within conservative circles, and too conservative to fit within liberal circles. Moreover, when the empty vessel of the church has been filled with a personality and/or the preferences of a particular person, attendance and acceptance are suddenly wrapped up with issues of “likability” and personal interaction in addition to the “style” in which things are done.
It seems to me that all of this is distant from what church is meant to be and what it is meant to represent. All of this stifles evangelism and intrudes upon the character of true Christian fellowship. I have written in other places that finding what the church is supposed to look like is not difficult. We have the Gospels and the teaching of Christ. We can read the New Testament. We can study the Church Fathers. What the church is supposed to be is not a mystery. It remains to be seen, however, if we are willing to reclaim that vision in our own time. If we are willing, the church will have to be something more than an empty vessel waiting to be filled by someone’s persona. It will have to become again that place in which Christ is truly among us…
Perhaps, as the church, we need to learn again the prayer of Martin Luther:
on an empty vessel that needs to be filled.
In faith I am weak, strengthen me.
In love I am cold, warm me and make me passionate
so that my love may go out to my neighbor.
I doubt and am unable to trust you completely.
Lord, strengthen my faith and trust in you.
You are all the treasure I possess.
I am poor, you are rich,
and you came to have mercy on the poor.
I am a sinner, you are goodness.
From you I can receive goodness,
but I can give you nothing.
Therefore I shall stay with you.
I’m pretty persuaded that the only cure for reclaiming the rule of faith is liturgy.
I’m undertaking a study of Anglican dogmatics and the texts I’m using are the first to really hone in on the rule of faith as a foundational part of theological practice.
I think it is all connected. People say they are “Creedal Christians” yet they ignore the context of liturgy and worship out of which the creeds grew. You can’t approach the faith as though it were a smorgasbord or a menu from a Chinese restaurant, which is what many wish to do. They want to take one item from column A and another item from column B, not realizing that theology is a unified whole in which the rule of faith is central, but by no means isolated from its immediate context.