Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ecclesiology: Introduction


In Chapters 12, 13, and 14, Pannenberg presents his theology of the church, or Ecclesiology. The Nicaean Creed presents the marks of the church as its unity, holiness, apostolicity, and catholicity. In light of the obvious diversity and weakness of the church, theologians wrestle with how we, in our time and place, can still affirm this portion of the creed. He will also interact throughout these chapters with Vatican II and official ecumenical texts regarding the church, doctrine, ministry, and sacraments. The New Testament also offers several images or themes that provided the basis for theological reflection. In Paul, the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ and a favorite emphasis is the church as the body of Christ. Luke presents the church in its origin and continuing growth as occurring in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We can see a similar emphasis in the Gospel of John. Holding together the Son and Spirit in terms of the history and functioning of the church becomes an important theological them. Further, the Spirit is an eschatological gift. “Everything in Christianity is some kind of anticipation of something that is to be at the end of the world.”[1] This means that “in some way” the redemption of creation and humanity promised for the end of history is present in a provisional way in the church and in believers. If we take seriously the Trinitarian history of God, the Spirit is the one who will accomplish this redemption while at the same time bring glory to the Father and the Son. The church anticipates its communion in the fellowship of the Trinity. This fellowship reaches its goal with the redemption of the creation and humanity. On the way to this redemption, the Spirit gathers a provisional community of believers. The provisional community is a worshipping community. As such, theologians will reflect upon baptism and the Lord’s Supper as expressions of the life of the community. The provisional community will form the character and values of its members. Consideration of the moral exhortations of the Bible, but especially the apostles, becomes important here. The provisional community will need organization. The gifts of the Spirit are the primary ways the Spirit moves the fellowship of believers toward the destiny of humanity. The role of leadership at local, regional, and global levels becomes a consideration here. Maintaining the notion of the church as a “sign” of the destiny of humanity with humility is a matter of much thought and discernment. Another biblical term that deserves theological reflection is “people of God.” This term relates the church to Israel and Judaism. As a result, it raises the difficult theological issue of election or predestination. It raises the question of the relation between the elect community and world history. It raises the question of the nature of the prophetic word in the course of world history in both the comfort and judgment it may bring.

Karl Barth has presented his view of the Holy Spirit awakening individuals and the community to the reconciling work of God in Christ in Volume IV of Church Dogmatics (1953-9). Knowledge of Jesus Christ as the one who atones for human sin and reconciles humanity involves the work of the Holy Spirit in gathering (IV.1, 62), upbuilding (IV.2, 67), and the sending (IV.3, 72) of the community. The knowledge of Jesus will develop the being of Christians toward faith (IV. 1, 63), love (IV.2, 68), and hope (IV.3, 73). He wants to be clear that the being and work of Jesus Christ is the being and work of the Holy Spirit. He will develop a notion of the Spirit that is something like the notion in physics of the strong force, the unifying force of God in the world. Christ as the guarantor of truth has its ground in the being and work of the Holy Spirit. He stresses that the work of the Holy Spirit is still lacking in the world at large. Although atonement and conversion have their accomplishment in Christ, the hand of God has not touched all in such a way that they can see, hear, and receive all that God has done for them. If they receive, they could exist, think, and live in its light. The hand of God has touched Christians in this way. In this way, only they have converted to Christ. The Holy Spirit, far from being a private spirit, is the one who assembles a community of those who recognize the divine power in their lives. Again, we see the Spirit as a unifying force. While the subjective apprehension of the atonement by individuals is indispensable, he will discuss the work of the Spirit in the community first. The Spirit awakens the faith of the community in justification, awakens the love of community in its sanctification, and the witness of the community in its calling. The Spirit is the unifying force behind the exposition he will offer of faith, love, and hope. The being of the Christian indicated by these theological virtues is a being in relation, that is, in community. Faith, love, and hope in this relation to Jesus Christ are primarily the work of the Spirit in community, and then in the individual Christian.

One notion of Paul Tillich has had an effect upon me. The opening of Volume III of his Systematic Theology (1963) is a masterful re-working of “life and the Spirit.” He writes of the differing dimensions of life, leading from the inorganic, organic, and spiritual dimensions. He then considers the various ambiguities of the self-actualization of life that he finds in self-integration (sacrifice and moral law), self-creativity (culture and meaning), and self-transcendence (religion). He then considers spiritual presence as it shows itself in the human spirit, especially in faith and love. Considering the spiritual presence in history, he finds a place for the religions as anticipation of the New Being he sees in Jesus as the Christ. He writes of the Spiritual Community, which he views as far broader than simply the church or even religion. As he sees it, the Spiritual Community exists in religion, culture, and morality. It remains latent in humanity, the fragmentary and anticipatory sign of its presence being the presence of faith and love. It remains hidden, but it determines the nature of the visible church. In any case, this Spiritual Community is present in religion, morality, and culture, and in that sense does not exist alongside other groups, but has a power and structure within. This suggests that “Spiritual Presence” and “Spiritual Community” are broader than the organizational life.[2] In other words, pastors and churches are not working to lay onto human life something alien to such life, but rather are seeking to find ways for people to express what is already present in them. Viewed properly, this notion can be liberating in that pastors and churches exist to direct properly what is already present in our neighbors and in our culture.

For Tillich, “Spiritual Presence” is a primary theme.[3] The divine Spirit manifests itself in the human spirit. The human spirit expresses itself in morality, culture, and religion. Spirit is a dimension of life that unites the power of being with the meaning of being. One cannot have an understanding of the Divine Spirit apart from a dimension of the human spirit. The spirit is a dimension of finite life driven toward successful self-transcendence, grasped by something ultimate and unconditional, an experience to which he refers as ecstasy or revelatory experience. Such an experience is the nature of the saving experience. The Spiritual Presence creates an ecstasy drives the human being beyond the self without destroying the rational structure. Such an experience does something to the human spirit that the human spirit could not do by itself. In that moment, the Divine Spirit grasping the individual has created the unambiguous life. The human spirit is asking the question of the unambiguous life, but only the creative power of the Spiritual Presence is an answer. One cannot compel the divine Spirit to enter the human spirit. One can think of this dimension as that of depth, the ultimate, or the eternal. Such a dimension is the ground of being for all other dimensions and the aim toward which self-transcendence aims. Everything finite has a qualification in its relation to the Infinite. A phenomenology of the Spiritual Presence in the world would include such ecstasy as the work of the Divine Spirit disrupting structure, without destroying it. The Spiritual Presence is universal and has an extraordinary character. One can think of it as inspiration, infusion, breathing, and pouring. The Spiritual Presence is not a teacher, but a meaning-bearing power that grasps the human spirit in an ecstatic experience. He refers to Paul as a theologian of the Spirit. He refers to the institutionally profane and the secularly profane manifestations of Divine Spirit. His notion of Spiritual Presence will keep one from devotion to only rational structures and allow for the freedom of the Divine Spirit. He wants to defend ecstatic manifestations of the Spiritual Presence against critics who want to defend the institution. For him, the New Testament, and especially Paul, is the best defense of these movements of the Spirit. He likens ecstasy to intoxication, which give temporary release from the burden of personal and communal existence, even if, in the end, it lacks spiritual productivity and creativity. He sees ecstasy as productive enthusiasm in one who pronounces the divine Word, one who contemplates, one who prays earnestly.

Jürgen Moltmann (The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 1975, 1977) has offered his contribution to the theology of the church, one that Pannenberg respects. I will mention here that his discussion of the church of Jesus Christ, the church of the rule of God, and the church in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit is a powerful discussion. He also provides a thoughtful reflection on the marks of the church as a balance of unity and freedom, catholicity and partisanship, holiness and poverty, and apostolic in suffering.

Jürgen Moltmann has said it well. The first word of the church is not “church,” but Christ. The final word of the church is not church, but glorifying the Father and the Son in the liberty that comes from the Spirit. In that sense, any reflection on the church begins with insight into the Trinitarian history of God in dealing with humanity.[4] He will stress that focusing on this history makes those in the church aware that the mission of the church is not the saving of the world. Rather, the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father is the saving of the world, and this Trinitarian history creates the church in its historical forms. It glorifies God in creation, it participates in reconciling humanity with creation and with each other, and it participates in the loving history of God with those who suffer.[5]

Robert W. Jenson stresses that if the church understands itself as founded in events prior to Pentecost and not in Pentecost as a divine initiative commensurate to the resurrection, the church will have the temptation to seek its self-identity through time in a sanctified by still worldly institutionalism, in a hierarchical sacramentalism. What he stresses is that the church will experience unease if it does not hold together the founding experiences of Christ and the Spirit, for then, neither the institutions of the church nor her charismatic reality can have their proper congruence.[6]

[1] John Wesley, Sermon 141, “On the Holy Spirit,” 1736.
[2] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 152-61.
[3] Systematic Theology, Volume III, 111-20.
[4] The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 19-20.
[5] Ibid, 64-65.
[6] Systematic Theology: Volume 2, The Work of Christ, Oxford University Press: New York, 1999, 180-81


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