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Ekklesia, Part I - Ekklesiology and Christology
by Robin Ryan, C.P. | June 28, 2012
In 2007 then Catholics on Call Director Robin Ryan, CP, wrote a series of articles about the nature and mission of the Church. Over the summer we will re-post his articles that can give us deeper knowledge in times like this, when the institution of the Church is so often misunderstood and even attacked.
This is the first article in an eight-part series on the nature and mission of the Church in the world today. As Roman Catholics, we believe that being a disciple of Jesus means living out our commitment through active involvement in the community called Church. In this series—entitled Ekklesia, the Greek word for Church—we are exploring the origins and characteristics of this community, as well as some of the challenges that the Church faces in the contemporary world.
Part 1: Ekklesiology and Christology
All of us who call ourselves Catholic Christians have some experience of what it means to “be Church.” We may not know a lot about theology, and our connection with the Church may be more or less strong, but we have experienced something of the Church from the inside. For most people, that experience has had its heartwarming and inspiring moments, as well as its painful times. As Catholics, it can be very helpful for our spiritual growth to reflect on our own experience of the Church and to get into closer touch with what our tradition has said about the nature and purpose of the Church. This is an area of theology called “ecclesiology.”
We believe that the origins of the Church flow from the life and ministry of Jesus. We will explore more about the Church’s roots in Jesus in Part Two of this series. But there is one important principle that I want to mention at the beginning. Our conception of the Church is closely linked to our view of the person and saving work of Jesus Christ. The way in which we envision the person of Jesus and his saving activity in our lives has a significant impact on our understanding of the nature and mission of the Church. In theological terms we would say that our ecclesiology flows from our Christology. So, if our primary image of Jesus is that of Christ the King, we may well envision the Church as a “realm” ruled by Jesus, with top-down structures of authority set in the shape of a pyramid. If we understand Jesus as the sacrament of God’s saving love, the efficacious sign of the redemptive charity of God, then we will probably adopt what is usually called a “sacramental ecclesiology.” This understanding of the Church sees it as an efficacious sign of Christ – the sign that makes Christ really present in the world. If we view Jesus as a liberator, we will most likely envision the Church as a sign and agent of the reign of God in the world. Our understanding of Church will focus on its mission to offer people liberation in the fullest sense of that term, particularly to be an agent of liberation for the poor and oppressed.
Some years ago, the theologian Avery Dulles (now Cardinal Avery Dulles) wrote a helpful book entitled Models of the Church. In that book Dulles constructed five models that he thought represented distinct ways of thinking about the Church that have been part of Catholic life through the centuries. He described the main characteristics of each model and discussed its strengths and weaknesses. Dulles thought that reflection on these different models would open up discussion among Catholics about the meaning and mission of the Church.
Dulles described the way in which some Catholics operate with an institutional model of the Church. This view treats the institutional element of the Church as primary, and it highlights the structures of government in the Church. It envisions the forms of authority in the Church in a pyramidal way, with ordinary Catholics having a generally passive role in the life of the Church. It focuses on the authority of those who govern and teach in the Church. This model highlights the need for the Church to have clear, visible identity and rules for membership. Dulles concluded that while this model fosters a strong sense of corporate identity and institutional loyalty, it represents a narrow view of the Church that exaggerates its institutional element.
Dulles found that some people understand the Church as a mystical communion. This model is very different from the institutional. It envisions the Church primarily in terms of community – spiritual bonds of fellowship. The Church is a communion of people with one another grounded in a communion with Christ. This model is rooted in the Scriptural images of “people of God” and “body of Christ.” It stresses that the Holy Spirit is the principle of unity in the Church. Dulles found that his model has good roots in the Scriptures and has much appeal today for people who are seeking community. Its weaknesses include a neglect of the need for visible structure and, sometimes, an undue exaltation of the Church (a triumphal view of the Church).
The third model elucidated by Dulles is the sacramental model. This model blends features of the first two models; it tries to unite the internal and external dimensions of the Church. The Church is the sign and instrument of the presence of the risen Christ in the world today. The Church makes Christ present today. At the beginning of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Second Vatican Council reflected this view when it said that “the Church is a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all humankind.” In this view, both the spiritual and the external dimensions of the Church are essential because the spiritual expresses itself in and through the visible. The challenge to the Church is to become an ever more tangible and credible sign of Christ in human history. Dulles concluded that this model has many theological benefits, though it is not an easy one for ordinary people to understand and make their own.
The fourth model of the Church views the Church primarily as herald. This model places an emphasis on the Word of God and on the Church’s mission to proclaim the Word of the Gospel. The Church is first and foremost the proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ. This ecclesiological model is favored by many Protestant Christians, though some Catholic thinkers have also employed it in their writing on the Church. It stresses that the life of the Church must be governed by the Scriptures. In some versions of this ecclesiology, the Church is viewed as an “event” (a “happening”) that comes to be when and where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and received. This model places great emphasis on the local community of Christians. Dulles thought that while there is a certain biblical foundation for this model, it lacks the integration of the sacramental dimension of the Church. The Church is more than just a Church of the Word. This model also needs to include a clearer sense of the Church as a visible community existing through history.
The fifth model presented by Dulles is that of the Church as servant. It underlines the fact that the Church is part of the larger human family, sharing the concerns of the rest of humanity. This idea is found in the opening lines of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor and afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts.” In this view, what unites the followers of Christ is the sense of mutual brotherhood and sisterhood that springs up among those who join in Christian service toward the world. The Church has a mission to serve the world, and in so doing, to keep alive the hopes and aspirations of all people for the reign of God. Dulles concluded that this model gives the Church a new relevance and vitality. At the same time, he argued that the concept of service must be carefully nuanced to keep alive the distinctive mission and identity of the Church. The Church is much more than just a worldwide social service agency.
About ten years after he wrote on these five models, Dulles presented a sixth model of the Church that he thought was more consistent with the experience of modern Christians and was able to integrate the strengths of the other give models (he did this in a book entitled A Church To Believe In). He wrote about the Church as the community of disciples. He borrowed this phrase from the first encyclical of Pope John Paul II, entitled Redemptor Hominis. He argued that this view of the Church has a strong biblical foundation, tracing its roots back to Jesus’ call of the first disciples. He thought that this image of the Church was closer to the contemporary experience of believers. Contemporary Christians can easily identify with the idea of the Church as a company of witnesses engaged in a difficult mission. Dulles wrote that this image of the Church is one that highlights the need for a free, conscious personal commitment on the part of Christians, something that is true to the experience of believers living in an increasingly secularized society. This model acknowledges the importance of every member of the Church and accentuates the need for mutual support in faith among all Christians. It can also lead to a richer and broader understanding of the Church’s ministry.
Through the years, Cardinal Dulles’ work on ecclesiology has helped Catholic Christians to reflect on and talk about their understanding of the Church. As he acknowledges, no single image or concept of the Church is completely adequate to the mystery that the Church is. Many images are needed to elucidate the various dimensions of the Church. The Church is a reality too rich to be captured by any single model. And the Church is a dynamic, not a static, reality that continues to grow and develop within human history. Additional models, not included in Dulles’ descriptions, have been proposed by thinkers in the years since Dulles wrote on the topic. Reflecting on the models he presented, however, can help us to deepen our understanding of what the Church is and is meant to be. It can also inspire and challenge us in our commitment to the Church.
In the next part of this series, we will explore the perspectives on the Church found in the New Testament. Until then, I suggest that you reflect on a couple of questions:
- Which of the models presented by Dulles most appeals to me? Why?
- Which personal experiences of Church have been the greatest sources of inspiration for me? What does that tell me about the nature and mission of the Church?
Image: "Word Made Flesh" by Robert Silber (artwork at CTU)
Part I - Ekklesiology and Christology
Robin Ryan, C.P.
Robin Ryan, C.P., taught systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union from 2004-2010. He was elected Vicar Provincial of his religious congregation (the Passionist community) in May 2010. He earned his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America. Prior to coming to CTU, he taught theology at Saint John's Seminary in Boston for nine years. During his time at CTU, he also served as the founding director of Catholics on Call, a national vocation discovery program for young adults. He is the author of a number of essays on God and human suffering, young adults and the Church, Christology, and ecclesiology. He is the editor and co-author of Catholics on Call: Discerning a Life of Service in the Church (Liturgical Press, 2010). He is also the author of the book God and Suffering: A Theological Conversation Through the Ages (Paulist Press, 2011).