Thursday, May 16, 2013

An Ecclesiology that "Starts with the Spirit"

Last weekend at synod assembly you were discussing the decline of Protestantism in America. On Facebook your theology-nerd friend was proclaiming, once again, the Barthian notion that the church is a Word-Event. Meanwhile, your child moves home from college with a book on communio-ecclesiology, and says the source and norm of church is the Eucharist.

Then Brian McLaren comes and knocks on your door and wants to talk about emergent Christianity. That night, you go to an art exhibit and Alan Hirsch is there discussing the missional church. Some Pentecostals walk in and start singing in tongues.

Okay, so this never happened in reality. But if you are paying attention to reflections on ecclesiology (theologies of 'the church') then in all likelihood you've had at least some exposure to almost every single one of these streams.

So which is it? Is the church a word-event, or communion, or missional, or emergent, in decline, or what?

Here's where Cheryl M. Peterson's recent work, Who Is the Church?: An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-first Century, gets to work. In four laconic chapters, Peterson walks the reader through Protestant decline, neo-orthodox Word-Event ecclesiology, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox inflected communio-ecclesiology, and missional/emergent theologies of the 21st century.

Many readers will not find anything especially new hear, but the one thing that will be new is itself worth the time. Peterson ably lays each of these ecclesiologies side-by-side in lucid detail. The early part of her book is analysis, after all, rather than innovation.

So first, Peterson wants us to stop dreaming Christendom dreams. Many if not most people are no longer looking to the church for the kinds of volunteer and community resources they did in the last century. There are many contexts to volunteer and build community in the 21st century. The church is just one. To stop dreaming such dreams, the church needs to discover once again what it is for, and who it is.

One faithful push in this direction is an approach to church as Word-Event. Informed by theologies of Barth and Forde, this ecclesiology sees the church as in a sense "created" by the proclamation of the gospel. This places emphasis on the God who acts, and centers the church in the Word. Peterson's primary concern with this model (a model she views primarily positively, it should be added) is that it focuses on the Spirit's work of gathering the church rather than sending the church.

Vatican II, especially in the work of Yves Congar, centered much of the global conversation on ecclesiology in communion ecclesiology. Here there is a quest for the unity of the church, grounded in God's communion as Trinity, and our communion with God in the Eucharist. Engaging the work of Robert Jenson and Phil Butin (my neighbor here in Fayetteville!), Peterson notes how communio-ecclesiology both centers and de-centers the church. "The gracious privilege of participating in the koinonia of God's trinitarian life cannot be possessed or kept by the church" (Phil Butin, 76).

Which leads us to the missional/emergent tradition currently shaping much of present-day ecclesiological conversation in North America. Engaging especially the work of Craig van Gelder and Darrel Guder, Peterson argues that Van Gelder's Spirit-led ecclesiology offers sufficient critique to the Guder emphasis on the missio Dei in that it notes that the missio Dei begins with the Spirit.


In the last two chapters, Peterson offers her constructive argument. Drawing on "Pentecostal" insights, Peterson begins with a narrative method, allowing the story in Acts and the creeds itself to narrate  a pneumatologically informed ecclesiology.

Building off of George Lindbeck's Israel-like ecclesiology, and taking this "interfaith" and ecumenical approach with full sincerity, Peterson proposes that the church "receives its particular identity and purpose through the Holy Spirit, which in the Acts narrative is promised by Jesus after his resurrection and received at Pentecost" (105).

From Acts, Peterson takes her cue, and proposes three roles for the Holy Spirit in relation to the church:

1) The Spirit is mission director, guiding and directing the church's witness by giving prophetic speech to various leaders in the church, who are described as being 'filled with the Spirit' in order to witness to Jesus.
2) The Spirit as 'verifying cause' by which certain groups are incorporated into God's eschatological people.
3) The Spirit as supervisor and sustainer of those in Christian community or koinonia.

After a brief chapter illustrating how the ecumenical creeds teach us to develop our ecclesiology "starting with the Spirit," Peterson offers an epilogue, a vision for revival. This is quite different from a "plan for survival" (another type of ecclesiology Peterson warns readers away from in her first chapter).  For Peterson, a Spirit-breathed church will reflect the experience of new life that the Holy Spirit brings in and through us.

Peterson's book is a great starter book on a pneumatologically-informed ecclesiology. I look forward to her next book, which I hope will be an even more in-depth constructive theology of the church that starts in the Spirit.

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