As discussions about the nature of evangelicalism have been prevalent around Mere Orthodoxy in the last few years (see here, here, and here), I turned to The Community of the Word with more than an academic interest. As I am continuing to wrestle theologically, culturally, and personally with what it means to be an evangelical, I was excited to hear several theologians address and correct some of the imbalances in the prevailing “thin” evangelical ecclesiology.

While many of the essays are worth reading, it was John Webster’s contribution that makes this volume worth owning. In two related essays, Webster attempts to articulate an evangelical ecclesiology that avoids two separate pitfalls. On the one hand, traditional evangelicals have accounted for the gospel in such a way that it rendered visible, ecclesiological structures extrinsic to it. Writes Webster, “Much modern Protestant theology and church life has been vitiated by the dualist assumption that the church’s social form is simple externality and so indifferent, merely the apparatus for the proclamation of the Word or the occasion for faith conceived as internal spiritual event.” Such a reductionist approach to the Church is ultimately a function of a misunderstanding of the Gospel. But on the other hand, Webster is at pains to correct the error without resorting to making ecclesiology “first theology.” As he puts it, “The ecclesiological minimalism of much modern Protestantism cannot be corrected by an inflation of ecclesiology so that it becomes the doctrinal substratum of all Christian teaching.” Why not? Because “gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows.” The attempt to save ecclesiology by making it first theology threatens to “disrupt the asymmetry betwen gospel and church.”

Such is Webster’s project. He proceeds along two lines. In his first essay, he locates ecclesiology dogmatically under the perfection of God. In the second, he argues that modern emphases on the visibility of the Church run the risk of not having the proper perspective on the Church’s invisibility.

Webster’s attempt to ground ecclesiology in the perfection of God is fascinating. In what resembles (though Webster does not suggest this) the medieval notion of the “plentitude of being,” Webster argues that the perfection of God makes it “internally necessary”–that is, necessary because of his ontological status–that God give being as a gift to others outside Himself. Webster goes to great lengths to separate himself from the ‘communion ecclesiologies’ of Robert Jenson and Henri de Lubac. Such ecclesiologies collapse the distinction between Creator and Creature, especially with respect to Christ. What grounds ecclesiology is not an identification of Christ with his Church, but the movement of God toward His creatures: “You will be my people.” Election is at the core of ecclesiology, only it is election unto fellowship rather than participation. In Calvin’s language, we are tied together with Christ through “spiritual bond” rather than “essential indwelling.”

Webster is focused, then, or preserving the dissimilarity between God and Man, a dissimilarity that can get lost in modern ecclesiologies. This position, of course, leaves him open to relegating the visbility of the Church to secondary status within the economy of salvation–a charge leveled at popular evangelical ecclesiologies. Where does this leave the Church visible? More on that to follow.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. Fr. Daniel Trout August 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Dear Matt,

    I realize that stumbling upon this post I have unearthed (in a digital sense) some remarks that are now over five years old. So, forgive me if I am now responding to a position which may no longer do your present thought justice. I know how intellectual maturation goes…often in ways that grace directs, not according to our own intentions.

    Having said that, with what I see here, I must politely disagree. I do appreciate your desire to address the “thin ecclesiology” so characteristic of American Evangelicalism; I lived it for over 20 years, so I can personally identify with its deficiencies and fragility. However, I find that John Webster’s proposal that you evidently defend from his book still suffers from same endemic problem, namely, this critical assumption: “gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows.” This is the problem: however you choose to develop it (“high” or “low”) this perspective that presupposes a secondary position for the Church after the Gospel still relegates the former to being a RESULT. “Church” is nothing more than the practical outcome of what happens when people respond in faith to the Gospel. I’m sorry if I am misunderstanding you or Webster on this, but this still sounds like the same Protestant/Evangelical mistake (from my Catholic view). If “church” is but the fruit of confluence, then she exists only as the sum of individuals that have decided to organize their belief and life in common. However you try to spin it (even if parsed in covenantal language) your church is merely an organization. Even if supported by the most spiritual intentions–missions, worship, catechesis–putting gospel first still reduces church to a pragmatic necessity that gives religion an external structure. This is NOT the biblical witness, whether you consider the Old or the New Testament. Consider: Israel is promised and formed before law and cultus are given with Moses; likewise dynasty is established before war is waged to expand the Kingdom; then the most Church-forming events of Incarnation, Cross, and Pentecost precede the actual proclamation of the Gospel.

    Certainly, I can understand your desire to want to preserve the Creator/creature distinction, but your ecclesiology undermines the fullness of God’s salvation plan which happens in and through the Church. In defense of “communion ecclesiology” (with which I am in total agreement with de Lubac) God DOES intend for us to participate in His very Triune life through Christ and His Church. This is completely consistent with what we find in both the Gospels and the Epistles: the Vine and the branches (John 15), the olive tree (Romans 11), the Head and the Body (Romans 12, I Cor. 12, all of Ephesians, Colossians 1). St. Paul even calls holy communion (see I Cor. 10) when this ontological union is sealed “participation” (koinonia) in the Body and Blood of Christ and St. Peter calls us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Election is critical, yes, but election is the sacramental seal that confirms the underlying ontological participation explained above. Otherwise, you make the saving power of the Gospel little more than a gracious change in God’s perspective toward “the other.” It sounds like a “drawing nearer” that adjusts the moral distance, but never addresses the promise of ontological concomitance grounded in the Incarnation. Of course, that would be consistent with the traditional forensic Protestant view of justification. Again, in the end all you have in this is people elected unto a supernatural association.

    As a Catholic, I cannot ignore that the communion ecclesiology evident since the Fathers helps us keep a proper biblical perspective. Church before Gospel focuses us on why the Word took on flesh in the first place. Jesus united Himself to us in order that He might unite us with Him. This, the NT explains, happens through His Body, which means that the Gospel is always the Gospel of the Church. The Bible from which we preach the Gospel has been formed, canonized, and preserved within the Church. Thus, it is through the Church that the Gospel is always transmitted. The lost are saved into the Church in order that She realize “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” not just expand Her numerically. If the Church is not the prior constant, then She is but a collection susceptible to re-imagining with every new generation. Perhaps that is why Protestants must schism in order to preserve different ecclesial identities within purportedly the same tradition. I have found in the Catholic Church that this is not so because what we say and do flows from who we are. We are Christ and Christ is us; otherwise, we are not sons and heirs but followers and fellows.

    Anyway, I certainly wish you God’s blessings. Although, I would suggest that you try reading The Motherhood of the Church by Henri de Lubac instead of John Webster.

    Reply

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