October 24, 2020

The Gospel of the Empirical Perceptibility of Grace, or in other words, Keep it Physical, Stupid!

In my studies I am reading Ola Tjørhom, who represents what has been called “evangelical catholicism.”  He is concerned that the Reformation project went seriously wrong, and one of its greatest failings was its lack of recognition that the ecclesiology of the Reformers remained essentially catholic even while they criticized Rome in terms of doctrines and practices. Luther was not an anti-Catholic rebel. Rather, he saw himself and those who embraced Reformation teachings, as better Catholics than those leading the church in that day!

Tjørhom has a great concern for ecumenism, because, he asserts, unity is a fundamental characteristic of the church’s nature. However, this is not merely a “spiritual” unity but rather a visible unity. He writes:

“…[I] wish to emphasize the basic visibility of the Church and ecclesial life. On a critical level, I would argue that ‘liberal-pietism’ and Protestant Lutheranism have ended up with a perception of the Church as a vague idea or an abstract identity that neither is nor has a body. In a more constructive perspective, my main concern is to make it clear that the church and its unity are just as empirically recognizable as the external word and the concrete sacraments that constitute it, and at the same time make it clear that there is a ‘physical’ character or anchoring of our life in Christ that follows from this visibility.”

He calls his perspective: “the gospel of the empirical perceptibility of grace.” His point is that spirituality, whether personal or corporate, is not “spiritual” as we normally think of it, but physical and palpable.

Today I simply want to list the central features he sees in this “materialist” spirituality and piety that he commends.

  • It originates in a place: the Church. Though the Church is not the source of our salvation and spirituality, it is the context for them.
  • It has a language of its own: liturgy. Liturgy is what God’s people do, bodily, when we worship. It is what we do together. It is the drama of redemption re-enacted as God speaks and gives to us and we respond to him and receive from him.
  • It is sacramentally based, with the external and visible means of grace as its backbone. The Holy Spirit mediates the presence of Christ through physical elements. In using the stuff of creation, he points to the ultimate restoration of all that God has made. This is crucial. We who cry out for mercy look not to our own deeds or feelings but receive gifts from outside ourselves through which Christ and his salvation comes to us.
  • It applies primarily to the life of God’s people as a whole first and then through that community to each individual. At best, Protestant pietism views the Church as a helpful aid to one’s personal and private devotion. At worst, the Church is a hindrance and stumbling-block. For many, spirituality is about my story, and I choose whether or not I will connect my story to that of the Church. However, in this spirituality, I enter into something bigger and more fundamental than my own “personal relationship with God.”
  • It is not directed toward producing nice religious feelings or sentiments, but is expressed through what we do and the concrete signs that accompany life in Christ. It is anchored in the world and directed toward God and my fellow human beings. It is a life of faith — nurtured by God’s external word and sacraments. It is a life of love — set free in Christ to serve others.
  • It is firmly grounded in both creation and redemption — it is lived in God’s world and in mission to all God’s creatures with a goal not simply of “saving souls” but of renewing all creation. It looks both outward: toward the world it is called to serve, and forward: to the time of eschatological fulfillment.

Ola Tjørhom observes that contemporary “spirituality” is being embraced enthusiastically by many in the churches today, as well as in our culture. However, it is more in line with the gnosticism the Church has always opposed than it is with classic Christian practice and tradition. It is predominantly esoteric, consumerist, and privatized spirituality. In contrast, the spirituality he commends is simple and plain as water, bread, and wine, offered freely, and found in the community of faith formed within the story of redemption in Christ.

O taste and see that the Lord is good!


  1. Wow. there really isn’t much to say other than “yep”. Will have to get this book.

    It is very hard to avoid even speaking in a gnostic way it has so permeated our cultural zeitgeist, but hey, “its the thought that counts”.

  2. I agree–this sounds great. I noticed in the liturgical readings this past Sunday that the crowds coming to John the Baptist all asked, “What should we do?” And he gave them concrete ways of behaving, not to earn their salvation but to prepare the way of the Lord; he was very physical in his advice.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And very Jewish. Judaism is very physical and “earthy”. Don’t float around on a spiritual cloud, Live Your Life.

      • But without much theological interest in the synagogue as a transcendent symbol. (The Temple, yes. The Torah, yes. The Jewish people, yes. But synagogues have always been seen as kind of an ad hoc practical arrangement.)

  3. Very good points.

    I think the current evangelical view of scripture has caused a lot of this: “All we need is the Bible.” There is no need for the church’s authority, teaching, and sacraments, because we have the Bible. With modern technology, the Bible is so readily available, and some use it to encourage this type of anti visible church thinking.

    Thanks for alerting us to this book.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And in isolation The Bible becomes the Koran and Hadiths, the micromanaging Party Line.

      • Hadiths are more like the church fathers. Not that patristics-thumping is much of an improvement on Bible-thumping…

  4. When you couple consumero-anarchism with a history of abusive church leaders and charlatans, you end up with a culture that rejects outward-facing identity, even while exhibiting excessive markers of tribalism. Sadly, this state of affairs within the church is a recursive reflection of the broader culture, where lack of cooperation in the name of individual freedom has ironically created conflicting tribal identities. As a result you have entire churches that remain apart based upon which personality will dominate the pulpit, or one’s culture war stance. It is a bizarre devolution of community that reminds one of the Cheshire cat’s grin. All the substance has faded away, leaving only a hollow reminder of what once was.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      It’s the end stage of a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

      “I AM WITH PAUL!”
      “I AM WITH A.W.PINK!”

      • This has always happened in the church, as you note. This was essentially the demand the Pope made of Luther: you must be with the Pope.

        But Christ does separate the goats and sheep by their individual faith. Of course, faith comes through hearing the Word and receiving the sacraments, and the place that occurs is the visible church, but the visible church is not a requirement for association with a particular institutional church.

        Saying “I AM WITH THE POPE” or “I AM WITH THE GREEK BISHOP” or even “I AM WITH LUTHER” or “I AM WITH CALVIN” are all the same as “I AM WITH DRISCOLL” etc. What Luther and protestantism get right is that association with a particular institution or leader is never necessary to receive Christ’s blessings in the visible church.

        Christians say I AM WITH JESUS and the only historically and traditionally defensible source of Christ’s teaching is Scripture. Which is why it is the only possible norm for doctrine.

        I don’t want to be too much of a homer, but the recent book by Jonathan Fisk, Broken: 7 Rules every christian ought to break” shows persuasively that the idea there is “one perfect church” on earth is an un-Christian rule to be rejected. He compares it to porn, the seeking out of the one flawless model that doesn’t exist and can never be obtained.

        • No, Boaz, no Christian should say “I’m with Jesus and my Bible.” A Christian is part of the body of Christ and should worship only where that body is righly constituted. In Protestantism, that amounts to saying, “I’m with Jesus, my Bible, and one of the 30,000 mutually exclusive manifestationsof his body, known as denominations.” Or you take a book like the one you’re promoting, make a list, and spend your life church hopping through those 30,000 until you go crazy, drop dead, or give up altogether.

          Been there, done that, hate that.

      • How about,

        “I AM WITH NICAEA!”
        “I AM WITH EPHESUS!”


      • I think some of you may have slightly missed my point. My point had primarily to do with our consumerist identity. Actually living as the body of Christ – regardless of denomination – takes humility and giving up your “rights” for the sake of the whole. In America, we just hop around until we find a group of people that will give us what we want, instead of adopting Christ’s perspective of serving others, bearing with one another in love, etc. Regarding tribal identities, of course they have been around forever. The difference today is that instead of the individual losing their identity for the sake of the tribe, the individual consumer chooses a tribe that meets the consumer’s perceived needs. This approach does differ substantially from “I am of Paul”; where presumably (based upon historical studies) the goal was to partake in some of the glory of the tribal leader. This is traditional tribalism, in contrast to consumerist tribalism in which the goal is a tribe that serves the individual. We believe that the customer is always right, and have let our economic views dictate how we do church.

  5. Haven’t ever heard of this book – but I find nothing particularly surprising in the points listed. I graduated from a Lutheran seminary within the last 5 years, and this is very much what I believe, and teach, in my congregation.

    • As a Lutheran, I am sure you would find these things familiar. Any tradition that takes sacraments seriously would. The author’s point is that these can be the basis of unity for all churches who will align themselves with the Great Tradition.

      • It sounds like he’s essentially riffing on the Lutheran definition of church, which is a beautiful summary of a very simple idea:

        The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. 4] As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.

        • “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Now, that’s saying a mouthful. Does this mean that the Gospel must always be rightly taught and the Sacraments must always be rightly administered for a congregation to be the Church? Or is there some level of error in these matters that does not invalidate the presence of the Church? Because, I’ll tell you, I’ve never been in a church body where the Gospel is always rightly preached. And I’ve been in churches (Mennonite) where according to Luther the Sacraments were most definitely not rightly administered (credobaptism and NO WORDS OF INSTITUTION AT THE HOLY COMMUNION) but where faith was far more alive and embodied than it is in many of the churches I’ve attended that kept all the “rightness” in their Sacramental liturgies and practices. I don’t believe God is a respecter of all this rightness or these institutional delimitations. He goes wherever two or three are gathered earnestly in his name. And sometimes (most of the time?) they don’t even have to be so earnest for him to show up.

          • I would say that the Reformers (especially Luther) saw the church in dynamic terms rather than institutional terms. Believers are being the church when they meet around word and sacrament. People can be Christians and groups can get together, but without God’s word (however imperfectly preached) and the sacraments (however imperfectly practiced) they are not being the church.

          • Don’t want to pick a fight here, but the best church I was ever in was my I.V.C.F. chapter in University (even though the leadership insisted we were not a church.) Here we worshipped together, prayed together, studied together, ate together, cared for each other, and cared for others, and spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Almost no preaching of the word, per se, and almost no sacraments, but still a wonderful representation of Christ’s body, which he called the church.

            • I think the leadership was right in insisting you were not a church. I would call it a fellowship, a mission group, a company of believers. I have no intent to disrespect such groups. I don’t think they are churches, however.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            However, IVCF seems to have the best reputation of all the on-campus Christian organizations. Very few reports of off-the-deep-end excesses like you hear about Campus Crusade and especially the Navigators.

          • You might think that Chaplain Mike, but I have to say that we were the body of Christ in that place, and it was probably the closest thing to a New Testament Church that I have experienced in my nearly 50 years of experience with churches.

          • @HUG – In my case I have belonged to, and had positive experiences with all three. I know that others on here have had diffferent experiences.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Ola Tjørhom seems to give excellent analysis as to the current state of the Church and Christian spirituality. Divorcing oneself from the physical Church, yet seeking out some kind of separatist inner presence that will guide and bless, seems to me to be missing the mark. Good luck with that.

    Christ came to us in a physical body, God becoming man (human) in every way one can imagine. God didn’t come to us in floating mist or spirit.

    Creation is the work of God’s hand. It wasn’t given to us to depreciate, plunder, and burn. One day it will be restored, and although we do not know it’s ultimate form, it will be a recreated physicality. Thus we pray that it be done. The coming Kingdom is more than a spiritual dream. It will be touchable, perceptible, and observable.

    Thus the sacraments, liturgy, and the physical Church. In them we have promise of redemption the return of Christ, and a new Creation.

    At this rate my book budget will be blown for next year!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Divorcing oneself from the physical Church, yet seeking out some kind of separatist inner presence that will guide and bless, seems to me to be missing the mark. Good luck with that.

      As well as begging the question, “How does that differ from any generic Inner Light philosophy?”

      Christ came to us in a physical body, God becoming man (human) in every way one can imagine. God didn’t come to us in floating mist or spirit.

      The Incarnation means God Almighty having to squat down and take a dump behind a bush by the side of a dirt road in Palestine. (You’ll get quite a reaction to that statement when you say it out loud.)

      Creation is the work of God’s hand. It wasn’t given to us to depreciate, plunder, and burn.

      And when you figure in Spiritual(TM), you get “It’s All Gonna Burn”. Op Cit the urban legend about James Watt’s Senate confirmation hearings.

      • “(You’ll get quite a reaction to that statement when you say it out loud.)”

        Yes–the nuns rap your knuckles with a ruler.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Actually, I’ve gotten the best reactions to that from educated Catholics. It’s the Evangelicals and uber-Spiritual types whose heads tend to explode.

  7. Thank you. Good commentary.

  8. I applaud Tjorholm in his call for an ecumenical movement among churches. Bonhoeffer was a believer in this as well seeking truth wherever he found it, among Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews. We pray for the catholic church in our creed every Sunday, but how many of us put action behind these words? I wonder what would happen to churches, how they might be transformed, if ecumenical activities were part of their mission? How many pastors or church councils give real thought to the importance of the catholic church as the visible church?
    Overall, I see Tjorholm encouraging us to think, act & create non-dualistically as Fr. Richard Rohr does & as Jesus did in coming to fulfill the Law, not negate it.

    • I think what he says about unity being intrinsic to the very nature of the Church is very important. It’s not optional.

      • I would agree, but how does that play out in practice? In all your travels & studies, how many churches are active in ecumenical outreach? The only ecumenical activity I’m familiar with is a community Thanksgiving service that occurred in a small town in NJ many years ago. Each year a different church would host it. Don’t know if they still do this & there hasn’t been a whisper of anything like this happening in the midwestern town where I’ve lived the past 8 years. How do we begin? Does Tjorholm offer any ideas?

        • Tjorhom has been involved more in Europe. Over the years there has been much talk about ecumenism, but in my view it will only take hold when we begin to see things happen at the congregational and community level. That means pastors and lay leaders in the churches have to catch a vision for it.

    • There is an ecumenical movement. Mostly it consists of talk, but a few denominations have begun to recognize one another’s ordinations and such. What more do you want them to do? And…which groups do you want to do it? (Are the Mormons invited?)

  9. If the “one perfect church” cannot be found in this universe, do you merely ‘love the one you’re with’ though rotten to the core? Not if but when Fisk’s denomination also embraces openly-gay clergy (as does the ELCA), does he remain in the pulpit, or run screaming into the night in search of at least some semblance of the “one perfect church”?

  10. Contemporary is very visual and sensual, with loud, flashy worship rock bands occupying a stage and a charismatic speakers incorporating movie clips and powerpoint slides up on the jumbotron during their motivational presentations. Sensuality and sacramentalism are easily mistaken, but there is a critical difference. Sensuality points us inward to ourselves, and sacraments draws us to God. Sensuality is us trying to “experience” God; while sacraments are God’s mean of condesending to meet us where we are. Sensualism is gnostic in the sense that the physical is merely a necessary evil needed as means to achieve a spiritual experience, but sacraments honor meager elements by transforming them into a means of grace.

    There is an equally sinister doppleganger to sacraments, which is superstition – physical elements or symbols taking on demonic, humanly oppressive powers. This week is a giant testamony of that power, where an ancient stone Mayan tablet has lead millions to expect the end of the world in two days. Where the reformation lost its way with sacraments began with an over-correction of the abuses of the church to use sacraments as a means to control and manipulate the people. This, too, is a demonic, superstitious use of phyical elements.

    • Oh, the Mayan apocalypse is real my friend. But don’t max out your credit card just yet – it’s the Mayan apocalypse. I’m guessing it won’t affect you 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Actually, it’s Mayan New Years at a Baktun turnover — basically, the Mayan Long Count’s equivalent of Y2K. I’m sure you remember all the End Times superstitions that Y2K set off?

        And a little background element from Paul Meier’s highly-documented historical novels Pontius Pilate and Flames of Rome set in the early Roman Empire: The simultaneous extreme skepticism/practical atheism combined with extreme superstition in Romans of the time. In contemporary imagery, it would be like The Amazing Randi or Richard Dawkins not getting out of bed in the morning until they consulted astrologers and soothsayers for the omens of the day.

        Oh, and one of the beefs the Romans had with this new cult of “Christians” was that they weren’t superstitious enough to be a REAL religion.

        • Sam Harris consulting a haruspex to divine omens in the entrails of a bird? But I think it was the poor uneducated masses who were superstitious in ancient Rome. The elite were skeptical but played along with it to A) give the masses the required dose of opiates, along with bread and circuses and B) hedge their own bets, just in case the manipulation of power and prestige had a numinous aspect. You can’t be too careful, you know.
          Nothing much has changed.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            “Oh, the more it changes
            The more it stays the same;
            And the Hand just rearranges
            The players in the game…”
            — Al Stewart, “Nostradamus”, “Past, Present, and Future” album, 1973

          • HUG,
            “The hand of fate is on me now,
            It pick me up and it knock me down…”
            -the Rolling Stones, “The Hand of Fate” from the album “Black and Blue”, 1976

      • The Mayan apocalypse came years ago with Pedro de Alvardo. If they did’nt see that coming, I doubt they could predict the end of the world.