Anne Rice is Right (and Wrong)

I understand why Anne Rice has renounced (HT: Aquila Report) the visible, institutional church. She’s a modern and she’s an American. She might also have some “authority issues” (she was born “Howard Allen O’Brien“) but I digress. Yes, she’s Romanist but she’s a modern American first and the most basic conviction held by all moderns (and most all Americans) is autonomy relative to all other authorities. Autonomy says: I am the measure of all things. Moderns do identify with Jesus but only insofar as he can be put to the service of their agenda. The Jesus of modernity is a preacher of personal piety and good behavior. He is nice. He is sweet. He is gentle. He is inclusive. He is a prophet of human goodness and perfectibility. In short, the Jesus of modernity looks quite a bit like an enlightened modern.The modern commitment to autonomy is such that they are also deeply suspicious of institutions. It is widely accepted among moderns that Jesus did not establish and institution, indeed, a priori,  he could have not done. The Jesus of modernity was the first Christian who experienced God spontaneously and who rebelled against any and all institutions. Modern Christianity has sought for two centuries to recapture Jesus’ immediate, spontaneous experience of the noumenal, the divine, and/or the transcendent and it has often sought those things outside of institutions. That this quest for what is often described as “authentic”  Christianity is also a mark of evangelicalism testifies to the essentially modern nature of that wing of American Christianity. Evangelicals are largely just a more conservative version of their more liberal modernist counterparts. This theory explains why evangelicals are so quick to exit the institutional church for small groups. The classic modern evangelical pattern is to move from outside of the visible church, to the church, to small groups, and once again to leave the visible church. Autonomy uber alles. From the assumptions of modernity and Americanism, Rice’s renunciation of the institutional church is par for the course.

She’s also right to note that the visible church is a disappointment, that it too often says what it should not and doesn’t say what it should. I’m reasonably confident that she and I would disagree as to the agenda that the institutional church should follow but I understand her frustration. For many modernists, Romanists, and evangelicals the visible church is just another vehicle for achieving a socio-political goal. The cultural right wants the church to do one thing and the cultural left wants it to do another and neither seems to understand that the visible church was commissioned by her Lord to represent a kingdom “not of this world” with transcendent concerns with implications for this life that are not neatly consistent with any particular socio-political agenda.

Sometimes becoming confessionally Reformed, especially when leaving American evangelicalism, is like a second conversion because it requires a death to autonomy. As an evangelical I did not have to renounce my autonomy. Indeed, I was encouraged to baptize my assumptions and to bring them into the church. When I discovered the Reformation I found that there was another way of understanding the Christian faith which required me to deny that I am the measure of all things. It is this recognition that is at stake in the argument about human free will and sola gratia: autonomy. This is what is at stake in the argument about sola scriptura: the denial of human autonomy relative to the source of authority. Perhaps the great difference between Reformed confessionalists and American evangelicals is, however, the doctrine of the visible, institutional church. It is the recognition that Jesus wasn’t only meek, he wasn’t a rebel against all institutions, he wasn’t a prophet of pietism and the spontaneous experience of the divine. It was a great shock for me to learn than Jesus intentionally established an institution: the church (see Matt 16; 18; 28:18-20).

Rice is right about some things but she is also wrong too. Jesus wasn’t a proto-modern. He wasn’t a prophet of modernity nor a preacher of personal autonomy. He wasn’t an anti-institutional rebel. He was and is God the Son and the Son of God (and the Son of Man). He purified the temple but he did not destroy it, not until AD 70. The temple that was destroyed c. 33 AD was was his body which he gave up willingly for sinners. Yes he was at war with the status quo but not in service of enlightened, rationalism or late-modern, post-enlightenment subjectivism. He was a warrior for the glory of God and the salvation of sinners, two agendas in which autonomous modernity has had absolutely no interest. Jesus wasn’t devoted to human welfare. He did not heal every sick person in Palestine nor did he raise every corpse. By enlightened modern standards he practiced animal cruelty. He did not stop the slaughter of animals in the temple and he sent pigs racing off a cliff. He was (apparently but not actually) indifferent to some pressing human concerns. If he was really all about our health and well being then his death, which he could have avoided in the service of temporal human welfare, was ill considered and ill timed.

For moderns, who will not let Jesus be Jesus it is only a matter of time before discontent sets in. Jesus is most resistant to being re-made or remodeled. He was and is what he has always been: the Holy, Holy, Holy one of Israel and a disappointment. He seems to have disappointed his mother, at least initially, at Cana. He certainly disappointed the disciples (hence Peter’s sword) and the disappointment among the mob in Jerusalem led them to clamor for another and a new new hero: Bar-Abbas.

Jesus is just a Savior. He established a kingdom manifested in his (visible, institutional) church populated by Peters and Pauls and Judases and lots of other disappointing sinners. He did not give it great outward power or pomp. He gave it a fairly incredible message (a crucified rabbi was raised from the dead and will return in glory) and two rather unimpressive sacraments. It’s understandable why people would be disillusioned.  At hear the root of disappointment is eschatology. Americans and moderns have an over-realized eschatology (yet another way in which evangelicals are thoroughly American and modern; “Shine, Jesus Shine.”)

Jesus is also Lord, however, and he is returning. All the glory folk seek now will be then. When the Crucified Disappointment comes in glory every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Messiah and the Lord of Glory. There will be no question. The empirical evidence will be overwhelming. The noumenal will become the phenomenal. What the pietists regard as private will become public. All social ills will be cured. All institutions will be perfected. The civil state will be no more. Of course, as I wish I had thought to tell my uncle decades ago, when he declared that he would believe the resurrection when it could be reproduced in a laboratory, they will have then what they want now but it will be too late.  To have Jesus now (and then) is to have his disappointing visible church now. One cannot have Jesus without his little, ineffectual church. He called us “the least of these” for a reason.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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29 comments

  1. The WCF is pretty clear:

    Ch 25

    “II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;[2] and of their children:[3] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,[4] the house and family of God,[5] out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.[6]”

  2. Good post. The anti-institutional/autonomy charge is particularly true of her generation. Still, I was glad to see you laid a good deal of the blame at the blabber coming out of these “institutions” because, let’s face it, that’s easily half the problem. And, while the “least of these” is certainly true of the church, as Horton likes to point out in his argument against the anti-intellectualism rampant in american evangelicalism, Paul was no recipient of a mere fisherman’s education. There’s a serious lack of training going on at some of our seminaries.

  3. I expected this from Anne Rice, having tried to keep up with her comments since hearing of her “conversion” several years ago. Her consistently pro-homosexual, pro-abortion stance – right in line with radical autonomy – became more and more shrill over time. She was increasingly insistent on being “non-judgmental,” except where Biblical morality was concerned, of course.

  4. RSC,
    With your permission, I would like to excerpt some of analytic portions of the above for my SundaySchool class. I don’t think many of my rural parishioners will know, or care, who AR is; but the material dealing with social concerns will be most helpful.

  5. Great post, Scott.
    I was wondering if your line of thinking here applies to the Christian life in general. It can often seem disappointing and run-of-the-mill when we don’t see amazing transformation in our lives. It’s like we need amazing signs of change within our lives immediately and constantly if we are to persevere as Christians. When these amazing signs are forthcoming we doubt the truth of the message of Jesus. Is that a fair extrapolation?

    • Yes, Conor. The Christian life is a constant death (dying to self) but it’s also a constant life (living to Christ). It’s always unfinished and it’s always semi-eschatological at best.

  6. Adding my enthusiastic and hearty endorsement to those already offered above: a very fine post Scott, and a must read for those who want to say they love Jesus while hating the Bride he loves and for which he gave himself so completely. As John Stott said years ago, “If the Church is worth Christ’s blood, then the Church is worth our labor and love.”

    David

  7. This all reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s point in The Screwtape Letters that intellectuals in each age try to reconstruct Jesus to fit him into whatever the current academic fashion is.

  8. Scott,

    I agree with a lot of what you write in this post, however, it seems like the real situation with Ann Rice might be a superficial commitment to Jesus—a shallow soil kind of faith that looks good initially but falls away from him over the “persecution”/contempt that comes from accepting Jesus’ lordship in areas like sexuality, worldview, submission to authority, etc. She may not think she is leaving Jesus, but she really never came to him—thus she falls away from his church.

    One thing kind of bothers me about your language in the post, and that is all the talk of the “institutional” church. I’m not sure what that means, but I find it rather off-putting. While I agree that Christ’s church on earth must have some structure: elders, a liturgy of the word and table, discipline, and things like that, I just don’t find that word “institutional” very helpful.

    Of course, I believe that ecclesiology is an area in need of serious attention by the church and her theologians. I would love to see the Reformed theologians in this country interact with the Knox-Robinson view of the church of the Sydney Anglicans, which rightly finds the locus of Christ’s church in heaven around him, even as Q&A 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism would agree, when it says, “the Holy Spirit grafts us into Christ, who with his very body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father where he wants us to worship him.” That is the kind of realized eschatology I can add my amen to even as I await the face to face consummation.

    • Bill,

      I use the word “institutional” to communicate that Jesus established something actual, fixed, with offices, with functions, with a ministry of Word and sacrament. The modern conception of the church among both liberals and evangelicals is that the primitive church was purely kerygmatic and charismatic, that it was completely fluid and spontaneous, that it was without structure or offices or fixity of any kind. Thus, for the libs, any evidence of structure is prima facie evidence that an epistle must be late, when structure began to appear. For evangelicals it means we have to get back to the primitive, existential, charismatic state of the early church.

      Jesus established an institution (organization) AND an organism, i.e., a living thing. It’s both AND. We don’t have to choose between them. Yes, there is an eschatological church which is reflected in this world but the earthly, institutional church is semi-eschatological (again, something that neither the utopian libs nor some super-eschatological evangelicals understand).

      • Thank you for the definition of “institutional.” I think we are in basic agreement, however, “institutional” is a word with a lot of negative connotations, and it isn’t a biblical word nor particularly helpful, in my opinion. I just wonder if there is a better way of expressing the truth of what Christ actually began in establishing the new community that replaced the old community of Israel.

        Although I agree there must be organization and this organization was “instituted” by Christ and his apostles, it just seems like the emphasis of Jesus and his disciples is on a church that is best described as heavenly, which would include it also being universal. Sometimes Reformed theologians don’t seem to faithfully echo that emphasis. I guess all I am saying is that the systematic theologians need to catch up with and reformulate all of the wonderful insights the biblical theologians have given us into the nature of the church. I don’t disagree with the formulations of the Reformation, but I do think we can fruitfully expand on their insights organically, the way a tree grows from a sapling to a mature tree.

        To give just one biblical example of the kind of thing I am talking about, take John 4 where Jesus speaks about not worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem or Samaria. Generally, theologians take that truth and say location is no longer necessary for true worship. But could it be, in line with Heidelberg Q&A 80, that now the place of worship is above where Christ is? Therefore the church is a heavenly and eschatological entity first and foremost, before it is institutional. Yes, the church is both an organization and an organism, but it is not as though that “and” is an equals sign. The emphasis should be on what the church is, which is a heavenly and eschatological reality that is gathered to Jesus Christ, now by faith, and later by sight. This emphasis would better reflect the New Testament, although that doesn’t mean we don’t teach the necessary marks of the church or questions of polity.

        • Bill,

          See RRC for an extended discussion and exegesis of John 4. I take the passage to speak to location specifically, contra many interpreters.

          As to using words that aren’t in the bible, Christian theologians have never been bound to that maxim but Socinian writers have been! Hence they’ve given up the doctrine of the Trinity– after all, the word “Trinity” isn’t in the bible.

          • Yeah, I know that’s an impossible rule to use only biblical words. I’m just not convinced that “institutional” is a good reflection of what the Bible teaches about church structure and polity. But maybe I’m wrong about its usefulness and reflection of biblical teaching. I will think about it. I had a seminary prof who advised us not to use “sin” in certain wealthy parts of the city because of its negative connotations. I certainly don’t want to follow his lead!

            I have an aquaintance who has departed from the “institutional church,” following Harold Camping’s lead. His thinking about the church is so focused on the institutional church that he makes no room for anything else. I try to tell him that someone who belongs to Christ can’t actually leave Christ’s church, but the obduracy of Camping and his followers is strong. They equate church with the institutional church, and refuse to consider its eschatological and heavenly nature.

            • Harold Camping is an arrogant, rationalist, dangerous, tragically misguided authoritarian cultist. What he has done to people is truly saddening. He’s an engineer and he reads the bible as if it were an engineering manual (though, given his hermeneutic, I wouldn’t cross a bridge he designed!).

              We confess, in the Belgic Confession, that outside of the visible church there is, ordinarily, no salvation.

              It is a sin and a gave matter, however American it may be, to leave a true church.

              See Belgic Confession articles 28-29.

    • Totally agree about Camping’s hermeneutic. Through my talks with my Camping follower acquaintance, his interpretation is terribly wooden. It also seems to borrow some elements from dispensationalism. A sticking point with this friend was also the definition of faith. This acquaintance will not agree to the Reformation slogan sola fide.

  9. “She might also have some “authority issues” (she was born “Howard Allen O’Brien“) but I digress. ”

    Is this some snark that i’m not picking up on? From biographical information elsewhere it would appear she was named (unusually) after her father.

  10. Scott,

    Thanks for this post. A “Twitter” friend sent me your direction to this post specifically. I appreciate much of what you say. Yes, Jesus the Christ of God did have much to say about the human traditions associated with a formalized religion, but He did establish cells (congregations) of followers who are to be sola scriptura in things pertaining to life and godliness.

    Thanks again.

    • Scott,

      Jesus did much more than establish mere cells! He established a process of discipline (Matt 18) and he gave to it (Matt 16) the keys of the kingdom and he established officers (see the pastoral epistles and the general/catholic (universal) epistles where the nature of the offices is spelled out in some detail. These are not mere independent cell groups. They held a synod (Acts 15).

  11. I came across Anne Rice on Facebook and care2.com. How could she lose her faith, and what difference does this make in leaving an institution? It is faith that guides, and counsel with God through Jesus. My faith in Jesus came to me when my mother taught me the Lord’s Prayer at a very young age. As a young boy, mostly churches were boring, and I never joined one, or became baptized. As an older man I have been studying the Bible under the guidance of friends whom have called on me. This post is not over my head, and I do have a graduate degree from the U of W. However, there is much between the lines.
    I have re-read it several times, and will visit this site more often.
    Why did Peter’s sword remain at his side after the event that occurred when Jesus pushed his sword aside? Jesus apparently did not tell him to remove the sword from his side, as a protective weapon. Peter could have died by the sword whether he lived by it or not? Just wondering.

    • Murray,

      Your experience isn’t unusual but it (and mine that of many others) is what Reformed folk sometimes call “irregular.” God is free to act as he will but he has revealed his will for us in Scripture (Deut 29:29) and our Lord himself established the visible, institutional church to which he gave the keys of the kingdom.

      The Reformation argument with Rome wasn’t whether there is a true church but which one was it. They (the protestants) claimed that the true church is that which preaches the pure gospel of acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, that administers purely (i.e., without corruption by addition or subtraction) the two sacraments established by Jesus, and that exercises discipline.

      Church may be boring at times but God isn’t interested in whether we are excited or enthused all the time. He really isn’t. We moderns (late or earl) place a premium on excitement that God doesn’t.

      Jesus told Peter to put up his sword because it’s use to advance or defend the kingdom was contrary to God’s revealed will and Christ’s mission. The sword the church has is the Word and it is the Spirit who uses the preached Word (Rom 10) to advance the kingdom. The magistrate’s job (Rom 13) is to restrain evil.

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