Ecclesiology as fundamental to theology

Before going into the different phases, I would like to point to the fact that ecclesiology is not only part of theology’s material content; it is also an important element of the constitution of theology itself. The church is not only an object of theological research and reflection; theology is also done by the church itself. As far as theology is done in the context of the church, in the service of the church, or commissioned by the church, ecclesiology may be understood as a central issue in the fundamentals of theology (what the Germans call “Fundamentaltheologie”). To quote the well known definition of Karl Barth: “As a theological discipline dogmatics is the scientific self-examination of the Christian Church with respect to the content of its distinctive talk about God” (Barth 1975, 3).

Of course this understanding of theology raises the question of what is meant by “church” in this type of definitions. The answer to this may be rather different in different traditions: In a Roman-Catholic context the church is easily identified with the formal organization of the church, understanding the church’s magisterium as the final theological authority. In Protestant theology this institutional connection has usually been much more loose, making it possible for for instance theological professors (as Karl Barth) to claim to be talking in the name of the church.

In recent years there has been a shift in the understanding of theology as something done for the church by professional theologians (be they professors or cardinals) to an understanding of theology as something carried out by ordinary Christians, in the context of the local community or congregation. Theology is then not primarily the understanding of the church by some experts from outside, but the self-reflection of the believing community itself. Of course, this does not eliminate the role of professional theologians, but they (we!) should not see their obligations fulfilled within the expert community, but rather as an obligation to reflect for and with the local communities. This should apply to all “movements” of the theological – and ecclesiological – enterprise.

The ecclesial character of theology raises the question of the academic character of theology, including its relation to the University and to other academic disciplines, including Religious studies. In this context questions of normativity, objectivity etc are raised. A question that is answered differently in different countries and traditions is whether church related theology may be included in a secular university. Of course this influences how we are able to do our work, and we should be quite frank about the conditions and limitations created by our different frameworks  also in the field of ecclesiology.

What makes theology problematic in certain contexts is its insistence not only to study human understandings of God and human beliefs in God, but to study reality in the light of the Christian understanding of God. If there really is a God that has revealed himself in Jesus, what does that mean for our understanding of the world? Also theological ecclesiology should be distinguished from a purely social scientific understanding of the church as a religious community: Its fundamental questions is how this community should be understood in light of belief in the triune God, assuming that this community is in some way constituted by God’s saving activity in the world. This fundamental theological perspective of theology – and of ecclesiology – does not exclude, but rather implies the full use of academic, scientific standards, procedures and theories in order to do this work. The potential conflict between the secular character of the modern university and the theological character of theology is a question that has to be dealt with all along. The scientific and academic standards of theology are not simply to be derived from other academic fields, but have to be negotiated in the context of theology itself (cf. Barth’s definition quoted above).

From this reflection on the fundamental role of ecclesiology in the understanding of the theological enterprise as such, I return to the different movements of the theological and ecclesiological enterprise, following Browning’s model.

First movement: Descriptive ecclesiology

The first movement then is what may be called descriptive ecclesiology. For an ecclesiology not primarily interested in the idea of the church, or the ideal church, is knowledge about the actual practices and contexts of the church an absolute necessity. Descriptive ecclesiology means that ecclesiology has to engage with empirical data and empirical methodology.

In not too far a past the question of the relation between theology and the empirical field was identified with the relation between theology and the social sciences. Until the 1980’s the main question usually was whether and in what way theology could learn from the social sciences and in what way social scientific data and results could be useful for theology. From this time theologians, especially practical theologians, argued that empirical research should be a part of the theological enterprise itself. Speaking here in Utrecht, it is most fitting to mention the central role of Dutch theologians in this context, especially Johannes A. van der Ven. Instead of just learning from the social sciences, he argued that theology should include the empirical approach in its own methodological repertoire. His concept of “empirical theology” fits very well into Browning’s concept of “descriptive theology” as a basic theological movement. The fruitfulness of this approach for ecclesiology was demonstrated through his book on ecclesiology, Ecclesiology in context (van der Ven 1996).

The use of an empirical approach within theology raises the question of how this appraoch is integrated in theology, and how it is related to other academic disciplines. Van der Ven does here distinguish between three models, the models of monodisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and intradisciplinarity. While in the monodisciplinary model theology relates directly to praxis, without the use of scientific methods, in the multidisciplinary model the social scientists offers the empirical description and analysis and the theologian subsequently develops a theological reflection. The interdisciplinary model then adds an element of cooperation and interaction between social scientists and theologians. In the intradisciplinary model which van der Ven himself advocates, theology takes up the empirical methods and techniques developed within other social sciences and makes use of them within its own work. This is in principle not different from what theology has done in other areas throughout history, when including e.g. methods and perspectives from historical science, philosophy, literary criticism and so forth (van der Ven 1993, 89ff). This means that a theologian working in this field should himself master empirical methods and social scientific perspectives! This does not exclude the necessity for interdisciplinary collaboration with social scientists who are not themselves theologians: theology should make use of insights and results from the general social sciences, and follow the same methodological standards in its own work.

The presence at this conference of so many theologians working within ecclesiology utilizing empirical methodology is a clear indication that what van der Ven names the model of intradisciplinarity in a rather short time has been tested and accepted as a viable approach within theology. The experience from my own institution confirms this: Until the mid 1990’s empirical projects within theological research was very rare, today it is one of the main methodological approaches used in theological research, including research on churches and congregations.

This rather rapid acceptance of empirical approaches within theological research also means that this is a rather immature field, with basic questions yet to be discussed and clarified. Some of these questions are up for discussion at this conference. Let me point to two basic questions. The first is the relation to empirical approaches within other academic disciplines. The intradisciplinary model may be understood and practiced in a way that isolates theology from the social sciences. The common ground may be understood simply as the technicalities of methodological procedures, while the real content of the research is understood as completely different things. Applied to ecclesiology this would mean that the sociological question for the church as a religious group and the theological question of the church as a Christian community is understood as two completely different things.

An important impulse in this direction is clearly John Milbank’s critique of modern social theory as a secular alternative to the Christian and theological narrative (Milbank 1990). A consequence of this critique may be that an inclusion of methods and perspectives from the social sciences in theology seems rather problematic. In this line of thought Nicholas Healy, referring to Milbank, argues for “a theological form of sociology”, a “Christian sociology” or an “ecclesiological ethnography” At the same time he acknowledges the limited usefulness of the results from an agnostic sociology of religion, exemplified by Nancy Ammerman’s congregational studies (Healy 2000, 165–169).

In my opinion the necessary understanding of the difference between a sociological and a theological perspective should not lead to any isolation between theological and social scientific research in this field. Theologians and social scientists should cooperate and communicate. Theologians should use the same high standards for their own research and have the same methodological training as in state-of-the-art social scientific research and scholarship. Theologians should read and make use of social scientists’ research and theories. When appropriate they should contribute to the internal discussion within the social sciences.

At the same time it is necessary to raise the (second) question of what distinguishes empirical theological research from empirical research within other academic disciplines.

To raise this question does not necessarily imply an understanding of the different approaches as conflicting or opposed to each other. When confronted with social scientific research that is implicit or explicit reductionistic, allowing no room for the theological perspective, conflict might seem unavoidable. In most cases attitudes are not that absolutistic, allowing for different perspectives and interpretations of the same phenomena. What characterizes theology is the attempt to understand reality in the light of faith in the triune God, as if the world is a result of God’s creating and saving activity. Social sciences on the other hand investigate human reality as social reality, as if this reality is socially constructed and maintained. In ecclesiology these two perspectives meet in a way that should not be understood as mutually excluding. The church is at the same time a human community and a creation of the Holy Spirit. To understand the first dimension ecclesiology should make use of insights and methods from the social sciences. The challenge is to integrate the understanding of this dimension in the second dimension, without just adding them to each other. How can the church – as a human community with all its dynamics and aspects – be studied as the creation of the Spirit and the body of Christ?

The simultaneity of these two perspectives is expressed by van der Ven as ”the principle of noncompetition”, which means that human and divine acts do not exclude or negate each other. ”God does not cancel out the activities of people in the church, but inspires, intensifies, and orients them. God gives to the people to form the church themselves, to do the church themselves” (van der Ven 1996, xiv).
For van der Ven this means that sociology and ecclesiology has the same material object; the church in its historical and empirical sense. What distinguishes ecclesiology from sociology is its formal object, which is “expressed in the description and explanation of the church according to the aspect of its future from the perspective of the gospel” (van der Ven 1996, x).

Third and fourth movements: Historic and systematic ecclesiology

This leads us to the next movements in Browning’s model; represented by historical and systematic theology. Starting from the contemporary practice of the church, ecclesiological reflection moves to the more general. This does not necessarily mean general in an abstract sense, especially the historical element of these movements relates the experiences of today’s church to the experiences of the church through history. This mean that concrete contemporary practice is related to concrete practice from history – at least when one avoids the temptation of idealizing history. The theological discipline of church history should be understood as ecclesiology in its historical mode, and as such a necessary resource for describing, interpreting and evaluating the contemporary practice of the church.

Time does not allow me to go further into the historical mode of ecclesiology; instead I will move to the systematic mode of ecclesiology. When talking about ecclesiology as a theological discipline, this mode is what usually is understood. Presently we see a shift in the understanding of what this type of ecclesiology is about, and of its role in the understanding of the church in general. This is a development that has not yet reached its conclusion, and it is therefore important to engage in the discussion, also for researchers primarily engaged in ecclesiology in its more descriptive mode. The central issues are at the one hand what systematic ecclesiology is really about, on the other hand which role it should play within the larger context of ecclesiology, among the other “modes” of ecclesiology

A fundamental question in the understanding of systematic ecclesiology is the question of its object. The natural starting point has been the understanding of the church as given in the faith itself, for example expressed by the creeds, cf. the Nicene creed: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. What is then the relation between the believed church and the experienced church in its historical and empirical reality? Very often ecclesiology has talked more about the idea of the church, the principle of the church or the essence of the church, without any clear or direct connection to the empirical church –a tendency that has been rightly diagnosed and criticised among others by Nicholas Healy (Healy 2000). Especially in Protestant theology this has been linked to the idea of the “invisible church”, understood as the true essence of the church, “behind” or “above” the church in its historical sense. In Lutheran theology this has traditionally been softened through the concept of the “hidden church”, understood as the true members of the church within the visible community of church members. Catholic theology on the other hand has traditionally tended to identify the church in its theological sense with the organization of the Roman-Catholic church. Through a renewed understanding of the mystical character of the church as the body of Christ this identification has weakened. From my point of view this tendency is good as far as it opens up for inclusion of other Christian communities in the concept ‘church’, less good as far as the theological concept of church is removed from the concrete Christian community.

In a recently published book I argue for an understanding of the theological concept of church that links it closely to the concrete, experienced Christian community. The main thesis of the book is that there is only one church, namely the church that is visible and that can be experienced in the world. When we make statements about the church in the confessions, it is this church we are speaking of. This is the only church, the real church. This church is a fellowship of human beings, gathered in the name of Jesus around the Word and the Sacraments. Statements about the church can be understood as statements of faith because this fellowship stands, from the perspective of faith, in a special relationship with the triune God, through the presence of the resurrected Jesus by the Spirit. Believing in the church means believing that Jesus is speaking truthfully when he promises that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20). Such an understanding of the church presupposes viewing the church in an eschatological perspective. From the perspective of faith, the church must be understood in light of its future, as a sign and an anticipation of that fellowship between God and humans which will be brought about by the coming kingdom of God. Statements about the church as one and holy must not be understood as statements about an invisible church behind the visible, but about the church in light of its eschatological destiny (Hegstad 2009).

This approach makes use of all the classical themes in systematic ecclesiology, but it insists that these themes should be discussed and interpreted in relation to concrete Christian communities. It should be developed in such a way that these communities find resources for understanding their own existence and calling. To put it in another way: The systematic movement and the descriptive movement in Browning’s model should be kept together.

In an ecclesiology oriented towards the concrete Christian community the congregation as the basic unit of such community will necessarily play an important role – more so than in more abstract forms of ecclesiology. This does not mean that a more concrete ecclesiology should be restricted to congregational life. Talking about the universal church does not mean a withdrawal to the idea of the invisible church, but should rather lead to an investigation of how different Christian communities are linked to each other and have community with each other. The local congregation is not the only empirical form of church that may be interpreted theologically, either talking about denominations, ecclesial organizations, or more network-like forms of Christian communities (what has been labelled by Pete Ward as “liquid church” (Ward 2002)).

Saying this in an audience like this is maybe like breaking into open doors. In this type of setting I sometimes get the opposite impression, that people working with the church in a concrete sense find traditional systematic ecclesiology rather irrelevant. Instead of formulating general statements concerning the nature of the church, should ecclesiology instead restrict itself to reflections concerning the concrete identity of the church?

From what I have already said, it should be clear that I fully share the concern that ecclesiology must relate to the concrete church. I do not agree, however, that ecclesiology should not attempt to formulate general statements about the fundamental identity of the church. The fact that one can never arrive at a final formulation of this identity is obvious. In this regard, both the Bible and the Christian tradition are so rich and varied that any attempt at formulating in more general terms what the church is must necessarily be incomplete and one-sided. This insight does not contradict, however, the necessity of the project in and of itself. This has a basic theological reason, given in the belief that there is only one, catholic church. An ecclesiology that only deals with the church in a specific context is problematic, based on the idea that it is the same church that can be found in different places and at different times. Even if every Christian community is unique in its given social and cultural context, the understanding of these communities as church makes it necessary to reflect on what these unique and distinct communities have in common, what constitutes them as church in contrast to other religious communities. To reflect on such questions is clearly the task for systematic ecclesiology – given we are not talking about ideas resting in themselves, but as resources for interpreting the concrete church.

General theological concepts and models for understanding the church can not be ignored also because they simply are of important in the lives of Christian communities. Theological ideas and norms are giving content and shape to the identity and practice of the church – of course together with other factors. To understand the impact of such ideas is of importance also from an empirical point of view. Any change in how churches operate has to take this type of ecclesiology into consideration. Substantial changes in local church life have taken place as a result of movements in theological ideas about the church. The ecumenical development in the relation between churches has been made possible as a result of theological research and conversation, but has had deep impacts in local church life. Sometimes local church life has been negatively affected by “correct” theological ideas that have not been in tune with the situation on the grass root level, e.g. liturgical reforms that have done more harm than good to local church life.

Fourth movement: Practical, strategic ecclesiology

The fourth movement in Browning’s cycle is practical, strategic theology. In this phase the learning from the other phases is brought back to practice, not just in order to describe, interpret, or even evaluate, but to contribute to new and better practice. When giving examples of this phase Browning himself primarily mentions practices associated with the traditional sub disciplines of practical theology, such as liturgics, homiletics, pastoral care etc. (Browning 1991, 57). What I want to point to is the necessity of relating these practices to a general understanding of what it means to be church in a given situation. The different practices associated with different areas of congregational life has to be related to the question of the fundamental identity of a given church or congregation, which is expressed in a certain pattern of practices. At the core of a strategic, practical theology there has to be a strategic, practical ecclesiology.
This means that ecclesiology should not be restricted to the descriptive and interpretative, but that it also has a constructive and strategic role to play. This implies in my view a special responsibility towards local congregations as the basic form of church. A basic question for ecclesiology in this practical, strategic mode should then be: How can the church be faithful to its identity as the body of Christ, as a part of the one holy catholic church, and to its mission to be a witness to the gospel, in the context it is situated? As such it could be understood as a contribution to congregational development. Of course, this type of questions should not be restricted to the local church, but also asked in relation to all sorts of structures and systems that support the local church, and thus is of an ecclesiological significance.

The social sciences offer interesting parallels and tools for this type of ecclesiology. Also the social sciences may have a constructive mode. In “action research”, the researcher is actively involved in changing a situation in a desired direction. In this type of research the researcher is not only a practitioner, but utilizes his/her theoretical insights and methodological skills. An important aspect of action research is the fact that the researcher is working with the people affected by the changes. Action research is not primarily research on people, but with people. It is “a practice of participation, engaging those who might otherwise be subjects of research or recipients of interventions to a greater or less extent as inquiring co-researchers” (Reason & Bradbury 2008, 1).

This type of research is also used in a theological and ecclesial context, even if few projects have been labeled as such. Research on the church with church members fits well an understanding of the church as something done by and for the church. Theology understod as the self-reflection of the church should involve those who are the church in reflection on ecclesial life.

Working with organizations in order to change and improve them is also a part of social scientific based organizational research. There is a vast literature on theories and methods in organization development (cf. Gallos 2006). To some extent such theories and methods have been applied also to churches, sometimes with mixed success. The problem with such methods and theories is that they primarily have been developed with regard to commercial organizations, organizations that primarily consist of employed people and have profit as their primary goal. Research done on voluntary and idealistic organizations may therefore be of more relevance to churches and congregations. Also theories from the field of education may be of value as they seek to understand the congregation as a “learning community” (cf. Everist 2002).

Of more direct relevance are resources and methods developed by individuals and institutions committed to assist congregations in their mission and life. A leading institution in this field in the US, which also is publishing a lot of resources, is Alban Institute in Washington D.C. (www.alban.org). Another organization in this field, which is represented at this conference, is Church Innovations in St.Paul, Minnesota (www.churchinnovations.org, cf Keifert 2006). Other countries have similar institutions and projects, either related to denominations or working independently from them.

While some of the initiatives and the literature on this field is quite practically oriented, with little interest for defining themselves in academic categories, other parts of this field is more oriented towards academic standards, theories and methodology. Sadly enough, the academic and research based standards of such programs are sometimes oversold. This is for instance the case with Natural Church Development (NCD), founded by the German Christian Schwarz.
Time does not allow for going deep into this field. I just want to point to the fact that this is a rather immature field, academically speaking. It is therefore in my view a need to develop this field in an academic, scholarly context. Whether we choose to call it congregational development, strategic ecclesiology or something else, is not the important thing. What is important is that the task of ecclesiology is not finished until it has reached the question of how congregational life is shaped and developed.

The challenge is to develop this field not as a field for application for results from systematic ecclesiology. The challenge is to keep the different movements in the theological cycle, the different modes of ecclesiology, together. The practical interests should inform and be informed by the systematic phase. An interest in change and development will in the descriptive phase lead to an interest in describing change, and analyzing factors that need to change. In the systematic phase the interest in development should lead to a question for how change and development is understood from a systematic point of view.
I see the systematic interest in different types of missional ecclesiologies as a result of such an interest (cf. Van Gelder 2007). Missional ecclesiology has demonstrated that change is something rooted in the very self-understanding of the church as an eschatological community. Having part in what is coming, still being on the way, means that change is part of the church’s very identity – while at the same time having part in something that does not change.

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