Models of the Church, part 3

After defining five models of the church, and considering them in relation to several important theological themes, Dulles closed his original edition of the book by considering criteria by which one might be able to evaluate ecclesiological models. The criteria are pretty good: scripture, tradition, spiritual formation, experience, theological fruitfulness, and ecumenical fruitfulness. They include three of the Wesleyan sources for theology (scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and add some specifically ecclesiological criteria:


Spiritual formation: Christians comprise the church, but the church makes Christians. What kind of Christians does this kind of church make? Does a given model foster a sense of corporate identity, belonging, and mission? And does it encourage — not just by its teaching, but by supportive praxis — living a Christian life? (Dulles breaks these out as two criteria, but I think they are two aspects of the same thing.)

Theological fruitfulness: A good model should yield new insights. Just like in the sciences, a good model is one that helps you make further progress.

Ecumenical fruitfulness: And that progress should not be only academic, but also practical. A good model of the church should suggest new approaches or specific steps towards healing the divisions among the churches.

All three of these ecclesiological criteria are also very practical. They ask, does it work? I’m especially drawn to the first and third of these: if an ecclesiology doesn’t make good Christians, what good is it? And if it can’t help resolve the scandalous divisions among Christian communities, how adequate can it really be?

Of course, the problem with having multiple criteria is that you have to figure out how to weight them. And Dulles points out that the weighting you choose is probably strongly correlated with the type of model you liked in the first place. So such a list of criteria doesn’t really produce an algorithm that you can run on 5 models and measure which one is best; but it does produce a good starting point with which to frame the discussion. And I think that discussions about how to evaluate and compare different positions are often more fruitful than the evaluations themselves: they get more directly at the underlying divisive issues.

Dulles concludes the original edition where he began, with the idea that none of these five models, alone, is adequate. Fifteen years later, in the expanded edition, he proposes a model that attempts to synthesize the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of the five models he originally compared. This model, the church as the community of disciples, is based on the communion or community model (Dulles conflates these, though I see them as very distinct), can be viewed in sacramental terms, and includes aspects of the institutional, herald, and servant models. It’s also strongly scripturally based.

Annoyingly, he does not subject it to the same analytic assessment he applied to the original five models, so it’s hard to do a direct comparison. What I dislike about the community of disciples is that it seems more a description of the church than a model of the church. The original five models were metaphors, and had the power of metaphorical language to inspire the imagination and suggest new insights.

It is very interesting, however, that the Roman Catholic Cardinal Dulles arrives at a model that closely resembles the ecclesiology developed by Everett Ferguson, a theologian in the Restorationist Free Church tradition, working systematically and almost exclusively from scripture in his book The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Ferguson describes the church as the redeemed community, which, like the community of disciples, exists as a contrast or alternative society over against the larger culture, and emphasizes a corporate sense of identity and mission, and the importance of assembling as church for worship and fellowship.

There are certainly differences between the two models as well, but the fact that two such different theologians, privileging different sources and proceeding by different methods, nevertheless arrived at such similar results, should give us some confidence in the correctness of the underlying communion/community model to describe the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

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