Sunday, May 31, 2009

An Overview of Four Ecclesiologies

While historical approaches to pastoral theology have helped me gain a greater understanding of where the church has come from, some contemporary ecclesiologies have helped to shape my understanding of where the church might be heading. "Ecclesiology" is simply theology that tries to understand what the church is. Three significant theologians writing about ecclesiology are Miraslov Volf, Leonardo Boff, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Letty Russell. Below is a brief overview of each of their ecclesiologies. The next entry will attempt to compare and contrast the four.

The ecclesiologies of Volf, Boff, Ruether and Russell find their groundings in significantly different contexts. Volf writes from the tradition of the Free Church drawing on the work of John Smyth and the Baptist tradition. He seeks to create an ecclesiology that counters the individualism of most Free Church ecclesiologies while attending to both the person and the individual. He also seeks to create an ecclesiology that is respectable in the world, establishing the Free Church movement as a recognized witness to the gospel. Boff, Ruether, and Russell are not concerned with creating an acceptable theology. Rather, their theologies have been developed as critical responses to the greater church body. Boff writes as a liberation theologian in Latin America critiquing the Roman Catholic Church that has served as the cultural center of his community. His critique emerges out of the irruption of the poor in his country and focuses on the elite capitalist establishment and its relationship to the church. Ruether writes as a Catholic in the United States and emerges out of the women’s movement in this country. Her critique focuses on the patriarchal nature of the church. Both seek to create communities that are set apart in order to renew the larger institution of the church.
Russell writes as a Protestant in the United States. She draws on feminist and liberation theologies to critique patriarchy and create a church that is understood through the eyes of the oppressed and marginalized. To use Volf’s definition, each are striving to create a culturally sensitive, culturally critical social embodiment of the gospel.
Each theologian draws on an eschatological vision to shape their ecclesiology. Volf focuses on the new creation. In the new creation there is a mutual indwelling of the Trinitarian community and the glorified church. The church anticipates this new creation and participates in it through the faith of individual believers within the community. Through faith in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit, individual believers are even now in relationship with the trinity. Since all believers are in relationship to the same trinity, they are also in relationship with one another. This unity in the Spirit is central to his understanding of the church. The church is where Christ is present through faith and through the work of the Spirit in constituting the ecclesial community. Volf’s eschatological emphasis is in part a response to the charge that Free Church ecclesiology is separatist and does not recognize the catholicity of the faith. Volf responds by pushing catholicity into the eschatological realm rather than as a present reality. There are some present aspects. At a minimum, all churches must recognize the legitimacy of all other churches that believe in the gospel. This is part justification and part judgment on the Roman Catholic Church. At a maximum, the church should strive to reflect the eschatological reality where all nations and tongues together confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. For Volf, though, complete unity will not take place until the new creation.
Volf’s eschatology highlights the deficiencies in the historic church that will not be redeemed until the end times. He highlights the spiritual reality over the material reality of the church. As such, his sense of mission in the church often remains at a spiritual level. He critiques those who only emphasize the actions of the gospel arguing that there must be a verbal assent and a cognitive understanding of Christ. Boff, Ruether and Russell also have eschatological frameworks that shape their ecclesiologies, but their eschatological frameworks drives them towards a more materially focused mission seeking to create more just societies in this world.
Ruether draws on the New Testament church in Women-Church to shape her structure of the church. For Ruether, the New Testament church was an eschatological community. It was a charismatic community whose ministry was empowered by the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps most central for Ruether, the gender relations within the New Testament church were modeled after the eschatological reality rather than on the order of creation. As such, men and women served equally in the early church. It was not until the church began to develop a structure and institutionalize that patriarchy set in and women were pushed out of leadership. Ruether’s ecclesiology focuses on returning to the eschatological structure of the church by creating an egalitarian community that resists patriarchy. While Volf’s new creation is grounded in relationship to the trinity, Ruether’s new creation is a feminist vision of the church in which women are equally valued in the culture. As with Volf, her ecclesiology focuses on the creation of such a community more than on an outward vision. While for Volf, such a community is the church itself, for Ruether such a community is only one aspect of the church. Ruether sees her Women-Church functioning as a renewal movement within the greater church. A separate community is needed for critical distance, but should remain in conversation with the wider institution. The Church, for Ruether, is not made up of individual congregations, but following Catholic ecclesiology, is a single entity. The church consists of the institutional Church as well as spirit-filled communities such as Women-Church whose role is to call the institutional Church back to its New Testament roots.
Boff has a similar understanding of the church in his work Ecclesiogenesis. Perhaps this is due to a similar grounding in Catholic theology. He sees the base communities in Latin America as spirit-filled communities who are to serve as renewal movements within the larger institutional Church. His eschatological vision, though, is slightly different than that of Ruether or Volf. Ruether focuses on liberation through the dismantling of patriarchy. Boff focuses on the dismantling of alienating structures, especially the global capitalism that has oppressed the people of Latin America. The differences between Volf and Boff can be illustrated by their understanding of friendship. For Volf, the church is characterized by “sibling friend” relationships. These sibling friend relationships among the believers are modeled after the relationships among the persons of the trinity. They are characterized by mutuality, equality, and love. For Volf, the focus of the new creation is community and relationship. Here he draws on Moltmann’s understanding of the relational trinity. He differs from his mentor, though, and with Boff, on how those relationships work themselves out in the world. Rather than focusing on relationships with one another, though they are also essential, Boff and Moltmann focus on Christ’s relationship to the world. The image of friendship in liberation theology is that of Christ as the friend of the oppressed, coming alongside the poor and the least of these, bringing new life and liberation from injustice. While Volf focuses on the spiritual unity of the community, Boff and Moltmann focus on demonstrating friendship to the world by working against injustice.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Luther and the Pastoral Office

Yes, I am back to sharing some of my essays from my doctoral exams from last August. If you remember from March, I have been tracing some of the historical understandings of the pastoral office. This post focuses on the work of Martin Luther. Within my own denomination, Luther's work is extremely significant as if lays the foundation for the structure of the state church that was present in Sweden at the founding of the Evangelical Covenant Church. Our heritage is drawn from those who were not only shaped by Lutheranism, but sought to reform it. In many ways they were seeking not to reform Luther, but to reclaim Luther and to complete the reforming work that he had started many years before.

A large number of Luther’s letters and treatises have been published and many focus on ecclesiology as one of his central concerns. Perhaps two that address such issues most directly are his works Concerning the Ministry and The Babylonian Captivity of the Church.
Concerning the Ministry was written to the churches in Bohemia who were currently in dissent from Rome over the issue of serving wine to the laity during the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church had adopted the practice of withholding the wine from the laity, only allowing the priest to partake. The Bohemians felt that the laity should be able to partake in both the bread and the wine. In response to their dissent, Rome had refused to appoint an archbishop in Bohemia. The Bohemians began sending their clergy to sympathetic bishops in Italy for ordination. During the ordination, Bohemian clergy were asked if they would withhold wine during communion. They would verbally assent, but upon returning to Bohemia would continue their dissent.
Luther was asked to write a letter advising the Bohemians how to proceed. His answer highlights his understanding of ordination. Luther argued that the Bohemians had every right to begin ordaining their own clergy. For Luther, the efficacy of ordination was not located in Rome but in the faith of the congregation and the character of the
minister. It was appalling to Luther that Italian bishops would ordain priests without any knowledge of their character and with the understanding that they would compromise their vows to withhold the wine. Ordination must be placed within the congregation and under the authority of bishops elected by the people who could judge the character of the clergy.
This understanding of ordination was tied to Luther’s understanding of the functional nature of the clergy and the priesthood of all believers. For Luther, Christ alone was the great high priest. By virtue of baptism all believers were a part of the priesthood. To set any individuals apart as priests was to do violence to the nature of Christ as the singular high priest. Luther further elaborates his understanding of the high priesthood of Christ in his work The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In this work, Luther outlines his understanding of the sacraments. He argues for three sacraments: baptism, Eucharist, and penitence over against the seven sacraments present in the Roman Catholic Church. He reframes each of these sacraments in light of the high priesthood of Christ.
The Roman Catholic Church, as highlighted in Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule, understood the Eucharist as an act of sacrifice. During the Eucharist, the priest once again offered the sacrifice of Christ to God on behalf of the people. Luther argued that Christ in his work on the cross offered the only sacrifice necessary. As the great high priest, Christ’s work was sufficient and there was no need for further sacrifice on the part of the people. The priest no longer did the work of sacrifice. Instead the Eucharist became a promise and testimony to the work already accomplished in Christ. The priest only served to offer up prayers on behalf of the people.
Luther’s concepts of ordination and the pastoral office were central to the Protestant Reformation. They shifted efficacy from the institution of the church to the local congregation. Ministry was placed into the hands of the people. All were called to teach, pray, and work as part of the priesthood of all believers. The church was the gathered people of God where the Word was preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Luther did not do away with hierarchy. He challenged the efficacy of the existing hierarchy and argued for its reform. The world was still divided into three estates: civil authorities, the clergy, and the laity. Luther’s work initiated the building of a new church structure with a new hierarchy, and 100 years later another group of clergy would challenge its efficacy.