I first read Nicholas Healy’s Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology a few years ago. At that juncture in life, ministry and theological reflection I found three chapters of Healy’s book to be particularly compelling: “Blueprint ecclesiologies,” “A theodramatic horizon,” and the chapter in which he sketches a “Practical-prophetic ecclesiology.”
In recent days I have found myself once again drawn to Healy’s work. My intention, this time, is a much slower and more thorough reading of the text. In addition, I plan on blogging through the various chapters as I have time. Hence today’s blog post related to Healy’s “Introduction.”
The task at hand
Healy begins by lamenting contemporary theology’s penchant “for describing the church’s theoretical and essential identity rather than its concrete and historical identity.”1 A practice that is lamentable because it “[focuses] more upon discerning the right things to think about the church rather than [being] orientated to the living, rather messy, confused and confusing body that the church actually is.”2 In other words, we have exchanged the reality of church for an idealized, theoretical construction of church.
How has this happened? And, why are we so keen to this sort of theological reflection?
Blueprint ecclesiologies, as Healy refers them, enable us to talk about the church in grandiose ways. The church is presented as a monolithic thing that has existed in a particular perfected state throughout the ages. Examples of blueprint ecclesiological paradigms would be “the Acts 2 church” or the various “models” of church noted by Avery Dulles in his seminal work Models of the Church.3
Some of the appeal of blueprint ecclesiologies is that they provide a means by which to “develop a highly systematic [account] of the implications of a biblical or traditional image or concept for our understanding of church.”4 In other words, blueprint ecclesiologies enable theologians, to both “synthesize what is already known about the church; and in an explanatory or heuristic way, to lead to new insights about its nature and activity.”5
Additionally, talking about the church as an abstraction makes it possible to avoid talking about the church’s sinfulness. An abstract, idealized conception of church can be perfect, whereas an understanding and conception of church rooted in reality cannot help but acknowledge and wrestle with the church’s sinfulness.
For these reasons, and others, Healy believes the modern approach to ecclesiological reflection is left wanting. It is with that in mind that he begins to sketch, oh-so-briefly, how we might right the ship.
The way forward, Healy suggests, must include the development of “broader, more concrete forms of ecclesiological reflection.”6 Unlike blueprint ecclesiologies that attempt to depict or define the church’s primary in terms of being, ecclesiological reflections regarding concrete church talk “more in terms of agency rather than in terms of being. [The church's] identity is constituted by action.”7 As such, “the identity of the concrete church is not simply given; it is constructed and ever reconstructed by the grace-enabled activities of its members as they embody the church’s practices, beliefs and valuations.”8
In short, Healy advocates for a form of ecclesiological reflection that is contextual and, as such, is “explicitly practical and prophetic.”9 Thus, it behooves us to recognize that,
[A]ny ecclesiological proposal, systematic or otherwise, depends for its cogency upon appeals, explicit or tacit, to complex relationships among a wide range of factors. Besides Scripture and tradition, construed within a particular horizon, these include an interpretation of the history of the church, a construal of Christianity and the mode of God’s presence to the faithful, and a construal of the present ecclesiological context.10
Theological reflection does not (and cannot) take place in a vacuum. Our theologizing is very much contextual. So too are our ecclesiological proposals.
Identifying and confessing the church’s sinfulness
By talking about the church’s concrete rather than idealized form, we can begin to acknowledge the myriad of ways in which the church’s “concrete identity displays the confusions and stupidities of our sinful state.”11 Such an acknowledgment:
- Enables the church to embrace “the eschatological ‘not yet’ [which] reminds us that until the end of the church’s time it remains imperfect and sinful, always ecclesia simper reformanda or semper purificanda;“12
- Helps the church to remember, “God is the solution to the problems of the world, not the church. The church, although oriented to, and governed by, the solution, still remains part of the problem.”13
Discerning and claiming the church’s uniqueness and superiority
If the church’s uniqueness and superiority is not to be found in her sinlessness, as she is not without sin; then, what is it that makes the church unique and superior to other religious and non-religious bodies?
Healy proposal is that the church’s uniqueness and superiority is to be found in her “Spirit-empowered orientation to Jesus Christ and through him, to the triune God. The church claims that it is orientated towards the ultimate goal of all humanity, indeed, of all creation.”15 While it is true that the church and its members “often fail to orient themselves truly towards Jesus Christ,” and while it is equally true that “they often turn away from the ultimate truth to treat other, penultimate truths as ultimate;”16 Healy argues, “What it believes to be the ultimate truth makes the church unique.”17 Yes, the church often imperfectly pursues said goal, but, “Its declared goal is unique, for it alone of all religious bodies is made up of those whose desire is to participate in the life of the triune God through incorporation into Christ’s Body.”18
- Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Dulles provides five models/images that can be used to talk about and describe the church: institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald, and servant. ↩
- Healy, 27. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 4. ↩
- Ibid., 5. ↩
- Ibid. My emphasis added. ↩
- Ibid., 46. ↩
- Ibid., 43. My emphasis added. ↩
- Ibid., 8. ↩
- Ibid., 10 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 20. ↩
- Ibid., 17. ↩
- Ibid., 18. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩