Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Sketch of my Ecclesiology - Reflection on "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles

Note: for those unaware of the jargon used in Christian theology, "ecclesiology" refers to the study of the Church, in particular, the Church as a theological reality, not primarily from a sociological point of view.

Among all the issues I am not properly qualified to have an opinion on (which, really, is all of them), I think ecclesiology ranks high. Except, like many issues, I am forced to have some sort of opinion, tentative though it may be - it was the case for ethics when I wrote "Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic" and, as I think came through clearly when I wrote "The Road to Rome", ecclesiology is one of those areas where every Christian has to have some sort of opinion; I do.

I finished reading one of the ecclesiology treasures of the past century: "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles, a few days ago. Instead of doing a review, which I am not very good at doing anyway, I want to briefly present what the premise of the book was, present my own sketch of an ecclesiology, and see how it fits with other models, and how it stands up to the criticisms led by the late Jesuit.

Dulles understands the Church to be, in a nutshell, a mystery. As he notes, mysteries are things one explores intellectually and experientially, but that finally have inexhaustible wealth, they cannot fully be comprehended:

"The term mystery, applied to the Church, signified many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself." (p. 15)

To understand anything of the Church, he says, we do have certain tools:

"Among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images. This consideration will lead us into some discussion of cognate realities, such as symbols, models and paradigms - tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day." (v. 16)

The first hundred pages deal with five models, the Church qua institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. The second hundred deal with how these models relate to areas such as eschatology, ministry and the relation between the Church theologically and the churches (one might say "sociologically"), as well as evaluation of the models. I will focus primarily on the first half.

It is no secret that I favour what Dulles called the "mystical communion" model, which he divided into "People of God" and "Body of Christ", and of which I favour the latter. Not only do I consider this model to be primary, but I consider it to be significantly superior to the others, because I think the others can sublate to the Body of Christ conception of the Church.

Very quickly, why do I think that the Church is best described by the image of "Body of Christ" (or "Mystical Body of Christ")? Put simply, the apostle Paul clearly says so in his epistles to the Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians. What exactly that means is open to some debate, but the truth of the matter is not; whilst he employs other images, none quite have the almost definitional status of the Church qua Body of Christ.

What about the other models? To understand how those fit together, I must explain a little what I think the term "Body of Christ" really means: it is open to confusion, because most Catholics (I include myself in that number) would probably think first of the Eucharist. In basic terms, I consider the Church to be the functional prolongation of the Incarnation, and hence that in her mission, structures and teachings she reflects those of Christ. However, the essence of the Church is not quite divine in the same way that the Son is divine, for even when the two spouses become one flesh, there remains distinction in essence: the woman, though one flesh with the man, remains woman, so too does the Church, though "one flesh" with Christ, remain distinct from him.

It is relatively clear, I think, how the other models form part of the Body of Christ one - the institutional aspect of the Church, though not primary, clearly follows from the fact that the Body has many parts, and some are leadership roles - in purely physiological terms, bodies have structures. They are not primary, but they are practical outgrowths of what is primary. The Church is also a sacrament: as Dulles points out, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God; he is the embodiment of the love of God, made visible in his flesh. The cross is a sign of God's love, then, not just because it symbolizes God's love, but because it is truly and really the most excellent act of God's love, which is invisible in general, and visible in Christ Jesus.

The first three models refer to what the Church is, whilst the other two refer to what the Church does: because I conceive of the Church as continuing the Incarnation, the primary raison d'etre of the Church is the same of that of Christ. What was the ministry of Christ? It had the two aspects of herald and servanthood, of preaching the Kingdom of God and service, particularly to those overlooked, despised or rejected. Therefore these remain the crucial tasks for the Church, not in spite of the Church being the Body of Christ, but because of it!

Dulles writes of the "mystical communion" models, which include "People of God" and "Body of Christ":

"For many purposes the analogies of Body of Christ and People of God are virtually equivalent. Both of them are more democratic in tendency that the hierarchical models that we have seen in our [chapter on the Church as Institution] ... The image of the People of God, however, differs from that of the Body of Christ in that it allows for greater distance between the Church and its divine head. The Church is seen as a community of persons each of whom is individually free." (p. 49)

Whilst there are similarities between these two sub-models, I think Dulles minimizes a crucial difference, and responding to it will help respond to the objections that are raised to the Body of Christ image, and the deficiencies it is perceived to have.

Dulles misunderstands the enormous difference between the two mystical communion models on how they relate the parts to the whole. In the People of God, each individual is presumably one of God's people, or perhaps one might say a "Person of God." In the Body of Christ, it is not so clear how parts relate to the whole, but what is clear is that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts: for I am not the Body of Christ, but together with others who are not the Body of Christ, we form it. Furthermore, the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all within the Church are alike, a section it might be useful to quote in full:
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts."

So the Body of Christ is not exactly a "democratic" model, nor is it non-hierarchical, at least not necessarily so.

Still, Dulles has some important objections to consider, both to the Body of Christ model, and the Mystical Communion models in general. To the Body of Christ, he says that a historical analysis will yield different understandings of the Body of Christ, and a modern question might be "is this body a pure communion of grace or is it essentially visible?" (p. 50) He also notes that an "unhealthy divinization" can occur in this model, in particular, that if the Holy Spirit is the life principle of the Church, then the actions of the Church would be attributable to the Holy Spirit, rendering sin in the Church as unintelligible. To the Mystical Communion models more generally he enunciates again the objections to the Body of Christ model, adding also that these models "[fails] to give Christians a very clear sense of their identity or mission," and that it does not account for the relationship between the parts and the whole, between the "friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace."

The different understandings of the Body of Christ view of the Church should not be an enormous barrier, nor should lack of clarity about the relationship of its parts be considered such. Dulles, in the next chapter, shows that the institutional and mystical, the visible and invisible, can be unified in a sacramental view of the Church: I claim that the sacramental is already present in the Body of Christ model, for two reasons: first, as above, the Body of Christ reminds most Catholics of the Eucharist, not the Church - the Eucharist is an example of how the Body of Christ can be "really, truly and substantially" present in something, how the Eucharistic species can become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and yet remain a visible "substance", the bread and wine. Second, both Dulles and I consider Christ to be himself a sort of sacrament, in fact, a sacrament in the truest sense of the word: "Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God as turned towards man." (p. 62). Hence, just as the visible and invisible combine in the Eucharistic species, and as Jesus is himself a sacrament, so his Body, the Church, has the interplay between concrete and mystical within its very nature, which is sacramental because it is the Body of Christ.

Does the Body of Christ model divinize the Church unhealthily? Only to the extent that the Incarnation, in divinizing humanity, or Baptism, in imparting the divine life, does so. The concept of "Theosis", or divinization, has a long history in Christian theology, and yet I think it is quite clear that Theosis does not impute wrongdoing to God. Simply because I, in the words of the apostle Peter, "partake of the divine nature", that I have been adopted as a child of God, does not mean that I am sinless. When Paul says that his life is in Christ, he does not mean by that to infer he is sinless. One can be divinized without becoming God, and hence the Body of Christ can be divine without being impeccable.

Finally, on the view I have expressed above about what the Body of Christ model means, I have made it quite clear that it does give a clear charter for mission: unlike the People of God model, which seems to be static, from within the Body of Christ model comes what the Church should do - it should be the Body of Christ, and so do as Christ does.


By defending the Body of Christ model as primary to understanding the Church, I am not negating the importance of other models; I agree with Avery Dulles that the Church is ultimately unfathomable. Still, the Body of Christ "definition" of the Church is primary, in the same way that "true God and true man" is primary for understanding Jesus Christ, though we can nonetheless explore both his divinity and humanity, and give models like "King, Prophet and Priest", or the various models proposed by historical Jesus scholars, some more dubious than others, such as Cynic philosopher, "a marginal Jew", peasant revolutionary, proto-Marxist socialist egalitarian feminist libertarian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, etc... 

I heartily recommend Dulles' book, as I said, probably one of the most important ecclesiological books of the 20th century.

[Page numbers taken from Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974 edition]

1 comment:

  1. This was a very interesting read, as ecclesiology has been a topic near and dear to me for a few years, now, and I've reflected and written about it quite a bit over time. Most strikingly is that you (and Dulles) are running the same two models against one another as I was considering on the feast of St. Peter & Paul a year and a half ago:
    The notion, too, that Jesus is *the* sacrament of sacraments is spot on, and to a large extent is the key to understanding the sacramental nature of the Church itself and the sacraments that flow out in her ministry.

    Something that you only briefly touched upon which is one of the bigger questions kicking around in my head these days is the difference between the Church being the Body of Christ and the Church being the Bride of Christ. There's that one-flesh theology, which is pretty profound, but it's beautifully complex to unpack. As a Priest I've been coming to appreciate the Church as Bride in practice more, since it evokes the images of nurturing, feeding, caring, and protecting that is proper to the pastoral role. It's a strange and wonderful place of being Christ to his Bride!

    Glad to see you're enjoying the beauty of the Catholic tradition on your side of the Tiber; God bless your continual growth in the knowledge and love of God and his Church.