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.