Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim’s The Permanent Revolution

51Cf4aIVK2LFirst of all, this is probably less of a review than simply my initial reactions to this book.  There’s a lot here that I’m still thinking about and a lot on which I still need to do some work.  That is a compliment to the book.  The book has challenged certain assumptions of mine, assumptions that I do not hold lightly or cheaply, assumptions that I actually think are, in fact, more than mere assumptions and that I do not intend to abandon without further thought.  Even so, the case that Hirsch and Catchim make in The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century is so serious, so well-argued, and so potentially persuasive that I do not think it should be simply dismissed, even if, in the final analysis, it must be partially or completely dismissed.

Second, I’m going to have to interact with this book more, along and along as I’m able.  If the mark of a great book is that it cannot be read, shrugged at, then dismissed, then this is a great book.  It is potentially paradigm shifting, and those who have seen the maddening proliferation of ecclesial proposals streaming in from all quarters on an almost weekly basis do not shift paradigms lightly.  I certainly don’t.  But unless we want to dry rot in the calcification of our own paradigmatic comforts, we must be willing to “disturb the universe,” as T.S. Eliot put it.

The Hirsch/Catchim Argument

Hirsch and Catchim are troubled…by which I mean “concerned” not “mentally disturbed.”  They want to know why it is that the five-fold ministry Paul refers to in Ephesians 4 is not being fully acknowledged and honored and embraced today.  Ephesians 4 is the locus classicus of the Hirsch/Catchim proposal.  They refer to it forty-three times in the book (as Kindle counts it anyway).  The specific text is verse 11, though the surrounding context, as they ably point out, is very important as well.

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers

Hirsch/Catchim speak of this five-fold ministry in terms of the acrostic APEST:

A – apostles

P – prophets

E – evangelists

S – shepherds

T – teachers

Their basic contention is that the modern Church has denigrated, ignored, or explained away the APE aspects and have ceded control of the Church primarily to shepherds and teachers.  In particular, the book is an apologetic for the reclamation and recognition of the apostolic office.  The argument is, in a sense, simple:  if God has linked the full-flowering of the Church to the Spirit’s operation through these five ministries, then the abandonment of any or all of them is necessarily injurious to the cause of Christ in the world to the extent that they are abandoned.  And, of course, since the modern apostle-denying Church in the West is floundering as it is, is this floundering not likely the result of this denial?  Think of it in terms of a basic syllogism:

Major Premise:  Only the Church in which the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4 is allowed full bloom is a healthy church.

Minor Premise:  The modern Church, on the main, is not allowing the five-fold ministry of Ephesians 4 to bloom in full.

Conclusion:  The modern Church, on the main, is not a healthy Church.

Or something like that.

The apostolic office in particular is critical, Hirsch/Catchim argue, because of what it does.  Here is how they define it:

Once again, the clue to this answer is found in the distinctive role of the apostolic person as custodian of the DNA of God’s people. This is manifested through the apostolic focus on extending the impact of the Christian movement through mission, maintaining the integrity of the movement in relation to its core DNA, and providing the overall context for the other ministries to emerge in a healthy manner. We mention these here because the apostolic person has absolutely no mandate to tamper with the DNA itself—apostles are mere custodians, not generators, of that DNA—but they do have to be thoroughly innovative in two major ways. The two basic forms of, and contexts for, apostolic innovation are in the mission field as the gospel is extended into new contexts and cultures (what we call missionary innovation) and in search of new forms of ecclesia and methods for existing churches (what we call missional innovation). (Kindle Locations 5462-5464)

So outwardly, apostles “extend” the gospel into the frontier (which Hirsh/Catchim more than once metaphorically contrast with settlements ((read: institutional, traditional Christianity))) and internally they creatively and imaginatively propose “new forms of ecclesia” as well as new methods.  Obviously, this is very important and, the authors argue, it is encapsulated in the particular calling of the apostles.

Why, then, does the Church today not recognize the apostolic office whereas it does recognize the offices of shepherd and teacher?  After all, Hirsch/Catchim argue there is no  clear biblical reason for rejecting it.

Contrary to what some would suggest, there are absolutely no textual grounds for the elimination of apostolic ministry from the church. There is nothing in the New Testament itself to suggest that the APE ministries would, or should, be abrogated once the canon of scripture and the institution of the church were fully formed. Whatever exegesis was used to justify this idea had to have imposed an extrinsic meaning on one or two selected texts (for example, Ephesians 2:20) and is a theologically anachronistic, politically motivated, procrustean reading to make the text suit the sensibilities of the later institution. We are saying that no case can be made from scripture itself; it came from elsewhere. (Kindle Locations 6981-6986)

This is a strong claim.  The apostolic office was “edited out of the codes” (to use another of their images) and the only exegetical or hermeneutical reasons for doing so  are “theologically anachronistic, politically motivated” and “procrustean.”

Nietzsche once wrote, “All truths are bloody truths to me.”  One gets the feeling this is a “bloody truth” to Hirsch/Catchim.  I respect that, though I do wonder whether or not such naked allegations of exegetical incompetence on the parts of their detractors will engender good conversation.  But I digress.

Why, then, was the apostolic ministry edited out of the codes?  Presumably because it is a threat to the stewards of controlling institutionalization and to the entire programme of Christendom.

But as Berger indicates, when organizations become increasingly security oriented and more bureaucratic, they tend to suppress the more disturbing original message and mission that generated the organization in the first place…The apostolic functions (along with the prophetic and evangelistic ones) were edited out of the codes. The resultant Christendom system seldom demonstrated the motivation or the will (political, theological, or otherwise) to adjust it back to fit the biblical categories. (Kindle Locations 7113-7115)

If Hirsch/Catchim’s premises are true, then the results have been understandably catastrophic.

The fact that we have all but eliminated the possibility of an active, ongoing apostolic function from our consciousness and vocabulary, let alone from our practices, indicates that we have somehow messed with the foundations of leadership and ministry, at least in the way the New Testament church itself experienced these. As we have seen, New Testament ministry clearly included the ministry of apostles and, beyond that, of APEST. The words apostle and its derivatives are used over ninety-five times in the New Testament, whereas now apostle has been all but edited out of our vocabulary. Whereas it is used only once to describe a function in the church, we use the word pastor as a catch-all title for just about every aspect of ministry. And while the biblical understanding of teacher is circumscribed in the Bible itself (James 2), we refer to theologians as the sole dependable source of authority. How can we account for such a massive discrepancy? While accepting the ongoing role of the shepherds and teachers, we have to ask how it is we can claim to have a truly biblical understanding of ministry devoid of the active presence and participation of those who occupy the overwhelmingly prominent place in the biblical material itself. This radical mismatch between New Testament APEST ministry and contemporary Western understandings serves only to highlight the issue that what we call ministry today is a substantively different from the original forms. Either this delimitation of ministry to shepherd and teacher functions is what God intended, or it is not. And if it is not what he intended, then we have made a terrible error along the way and must do all that we can to correct it. (Kindle Locations 6935-6937)

Here we have the basic argument of the book

Strengths of the Hirsch/Catchim Argument

Hirsch-Catchim1The strengths of this argument lie in the thrust of the premises undergirding it.  Behind the particulars, it seems to me that there are at least seven clear premises out of which and on which Hirsch/Catchim write.

The Church will only be all that it is intended to be insofar as it aligns itself with God’s original design for the Church.

That design is most authoritatively posited in the scriptures.

The scriptures are perspicuous.

The scriptural mandates are timeless and binding on the Church today.

The natural drift of man, even redeemed men, is away from the mandates of God, even when these drifts are clothed in the language of the faith.

The Church may yet return to God’s design for the Church and will, if this is done, experience the full blessings of Christ Jesus for His bride.

The spread of the gospel is critical, for in it is life, now and eternal.

I would like for it to be noted that I am not trying to manufacture positives in pointing out these premises (as I see them).  Again, I am undecided on some of the central contentions of the book, so I have no secret desire to prove these brothers wrong.  If they are right, their challenge should be heeded.  If they are wrong, there should be clear ways of showing how and why.  I am naturally conservative and cautious when faced with such sweeping proposals, but I very much hope I have not given my comforts control of my exegesis.  I want to face the Lord and say that I sought to honor His revealed truths in my stewardship as a pastor, even if those truths caused uncomfortable changes in the way I approach ministry.

Regardless of where one lands on the the validity of their particular conclusions, who of us could be undecided on their operative premises?  And I would argue that Hirsch/Catchim clearly and passionately hold to these premises.

There is a kind of simple biblicism behind the central argument that would make the most right-leaning Southern Baptist smile.  Despite their very impressive terminology and sophisticated argumentation, I do not think Hirsch/Catchim would demur at all from the suggestion that the basic thrust of their argument can be stated in these terms:  “For the Bible tells me so.”

Oddly enough, I suspect that their argument will be met by many conservative North American Christians in such a way that a weird reversal takes place:  ostensibly sola scriptura North American fundamentalists will be arguing for tradition-maintenance and Hirsch/Catchim will be arguing for a literal, complete, and non-selective adherence to Ephesians 4:11…unless their argument is shown to be false from scripture.

If one is going to disagree with their proposal, then one should rightly do so on exegetical grounds.  Other arguments, of course, are valid and worthy of consideration.  After all, Hirsch/Catchim marshal arguments from a wide panoply of areas:  historical, logical, organizational, etc.  Even so, their sine qua non is Ephesians 4:11, and, by extension, holy writ.  In this, they are being good Bible Christians.

In addition to the strength of their premises, it should be pointed out that there is no clear or explicit biblical warrant for the abandonment of the ministry of apostle.  Furthermore, the role that they play as described by Hirsch/Catchim does compliment the other four, so there is a logical force to their contentions that harmonizes well with the ipsissima vox of scripture.

Questions for the Hirsch/Catchim Argument

Even so, there are legitimate questions that need to be asked about this, exegetical and otherwise.  I’m going to offer some here.  I hope these will be received for what they are:  honest initial questions and not evidences of a clear rejection.  If anything, these questions are for myself as much as for Hirsch/Catchim.  Taken together, they constitute a working list for my own journey of working through what is being proposed here, and I can honestly say that I would not have been driven to ask these particular questions about these particular texts were it not for having seen the force of the Hirsch/Catchim argument.

Question #1: What are the implications of Ephesians 2 for this argument?

18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Does the language of verse 20 (“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”) suggest that this foundation was built, past tense, on the original apostles (and prophets – the AP of APEST) or does the wording here allow the ongoing presence of apostles in the church?  (For what it’s worth, I would suggest to Hirsch/Catchim that dismissals of honest exegetical/hermeneutical questions about this and other texts is not helpful and is not conducive to the kind of honest conversation I imagine they would like to have.)

Question #2:  Does the choosing of Matthias at the end of Acts 2 suggest that apostleship is limited to eyewitnesses of the resurrection in such a way that it is necessarily a first-generation office?

21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph calledBarsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry andapostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Question 3:  Of what import is the interesting language of Paul’s description of his own apostleship in 1 Corinthians 15 to the questions at hand?

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

What are the implications of the phrase “last of all” on these discussions?  Did Paul see himself as the last of the apostles?  Is that what he means?

Question 4:  Where, in addition to Ephesians 4, are the clear arguments for the continuation of the office of apostle in the terms proposed by Hirsch/Catchim?

Question 5:  Have Hirsch/Catchim dealt sufficiently with Acts 2:42?

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

They do indeed interact with the verse, primarily to show (a) that the early church’s devotion to “the apostles’ teaching” is not antithetical to calling for the the dynamic presence of the ongoing apostolic office and (b) that mere cognitive awareness of didactic truths fall short of actualizing the role and giftings of the apostles themselves.  Knowing what the apostles said, in other words, is a matter of learning, but that is quite different from fulfilling the role they fulfilled, which is a matter of calling.

I will only hazard to say here that the early church’s devotion to the apostles’ teaching is not segmented into a vacuum in Luke’s account.  It stands hand in hand with the other marks of that amazing passage.  Most importantly, the overall thrust of their devotion to the apostles’ teaching in the context of the proclaiming, praying, fellowshipping, worshiping, bread-breaking church led to the astonishing expansion of Christianity in the world.  Which is to say, the apostles’ teaching was not merely teaching to the early church.  It compelled and propelled them forward.

Question 6:  Can the historical rejection of the idea of an ongoing apostleship in the terms proposed by Hirsch/Catchim be disregarded all that easily when the idea was apparently rejected from the very beginning of post-biblical Christianity?  Does something like the inherent wisdom of the Vincentian Canon and its definition of catholicity not at least caution us against making leap frog arguments from (a) what we think we see in the Bible and (b) us when the intervening two-thousand years shows that these passages were not read in these ways?  This is, I know, an admittedly limited argument.  In and of itself, it proves nothing, I realize.  Furthermore, my historical argument could be wrong.  But it is not an insignificant argument for those who take Christian history seriously and not simply as a two millennia long narrative of declension.


I conclude where I began:  that the Hirsch/Catchim proposal is a well-reasoned proposal that takes the Bible, the gospel, and the Lord Jesus seriously.  If Hirsch/Catchim are wrong, they need to be shown why.  If they are correct, the Church needs to rethink what it is doing, as many churches are currently doing (they offer helpful examples of this in the book).

I suppose I would only caution others and myself with these three things:  be careful, be cautious, be biblical.  This is not to say that Hirsch/Catchim have not been.  They have been.  This needs to be a conversation among Christians of good will, for whether or not one ultimately agrees with their argument, Hirsch/Catchim have done yeoman’s work in taking the Bible seriously, taking the gospel seriously, taking the call of the Lord Jesus seriously, taking ministry seriously, and courageously facing what they believe the full implications of the scripture to be.

More to come.

3 thoughts on “Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim’s The Permanent Revolution

  1. Wyman, thank you so much to reading the book as closely as you have. I would only wish that others would do similarly my friend. I feel that you really have tried to take our proposal seriously and for this I am grateful. I will try engage you in some of the questions, but right now I don’t have the margin and have to keep my head down on some core tasks. I am sure Tim will drop by as well.

    Semper reformanda! :)

    In Jesus

    • Thank you Alan. I’m grateful for the comment. I do indeed think your proposals are very interesting and very important. If you’re able to interact more, please do so, but I know your plate is more than full.

      A friend has commented to me that part of my concerns seem to come from my seeing you guys as proposing the continuance of the “office” of apostle as opposed to “apostolic gifting.” If you or Tim are able, I’d like to discuss that distinction more, or how that distinction plays out in practical terms.

      Thanks brother.

      Semper reformanda indeed!


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