Review: Critical Issues in Ecclesiology

(My review of this book, reproduced here, appears in a slightly different form in the Summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Volume 47, number 3, pages 496-7.)

Critical Issues in Ecclesiology: Essays in Honor of Carl E. BraatenCritical Issues in Ecclesiology: Essays in Honor of Carl E. Braaten edited by Alberto L. García and Susan K. Wood.

This collection might have been subtitled “Ecclesiology in an Ecumenical Key,” appropriately for a festschrifft honoring Carl Braaten. The primarily Lutheran perspective emphasizes Lutheranism as an evangelical and catholic tradition, thus harmonizing well with papers by the Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic, and UCC contributors. In general, the essays dialogue with ecumenical documents, confessional documents with ecumenical implications, and academic works by ecumenists including Braaten. They often include a historical overview of the theological development or ecumenical dialogue around a particular issue. Thus the collection is accessible to those with little background in the ecumenical movement, and interesting to students of its history. Many authors present case studies in their essays, which helpfully ground the work in the lived realities of the church.

Discernment and authority emerge as dominant issues, treated explicitly by Childs, Root, Senn, and (eventually) Sanchez. Senn’s positive appraisal of the Petrine ministry is surprising from a Lutheran, even one who presents Lutheranism as a schismatic Catholic, rather than a Reformed, church; it appears influenced by his agreement with papal teachings on questions of human sexuality that presently divide Lutherans more visibly than Catholics. Another major theme is the identification of distinctive contributions towards an ecumenical ecclesiology: distinctively Lutheran, evangelical, Roman Catholic eucharistic, and Anglican Pauline perspectives are provided by Peterson, George, Wood, and Mangina; these papers, too, touch on questions of authority.

Jenson’s brief discussion of the church as the Bride of Christ was marred for this reader by the absence of any acknowledgment that this metaphor poses difficulties for feminist theologians. Fackre’s discussion of the distinctive contributions of various ecclesial traditions to atonement theory, while rightly presented as an essential step towards unity, is primarily ecumenical rather than explicitly ecclesiological. The surprise gem of the collection was Garcia’s serious theological treatment of a topic usually dismissed as mere folk religion or superstition: the importance, especially among Hispanic Christians, of popular devotion to the saints. He reads this practice as a means of weaving our stories into the ongoing story of the People of God, and argues that it is a legitimate contribution from the local church to the life of the church catholic.

This book is a useful resource for either ecumenical studies or ecclesiology. Together with the ecumenical literature, it could structure both theoretical and practical discussions at the graduate level. It includes a comprehensive bibliography of Braaten’s publications.

Less formally, I gave it a rating of 4 out of 5 stars. 🙂

To expand on the substance of some of the essays in a bit more detail than was possible within the confines of the published review:

Childs examines specific historical approaches to scriptural authority in the Lutheran churches; his conclusion that certain understandings of authority are inherently divisive is generally applicable to ecclesial authority. Root grapples with the question of how to build ecclesiastical structures that reflect and are informed by the sensus fidelium, raising the question of whether the rejection of non-scriptural traditions (notably, of the veneration of Mary) is congruent with the principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Senn’s historically-informed presentation of Lutheranism as a schismatic Catholic church, rather than a part of the Reformed tradition, affirms the Petrine ministry as a clear witness to the world and servant of church unity. Sanchez examines the theological relationship between the Spirit and the Son as a means of grounding the ecclesial relationship between charism and office.

The Lutheran and evangelical principles lifted up by Peterson and George, respectively, are both presented in the context of a historical review of formative influences which naturally include disputes and discernment over matters of authority.

Mangina lifts up the distinctively Pauline principle of cruciformity, self-giving and suffering for the sake of the other, as a framework for understanding and embracing the costs of unity, from the relinquishing of denominational heritage to the establishment of meaningful mechanisms of mutual accountability among churches as proposed in the Anglican Covenant.

Wood recovers the distinctively Roman Catholic appreciation of the ecclesial aspect of the eucharist from the personal and devotional construals of the sacrament, and presents a eucharistic ecclesiology that encompasses the episcopal and Petrine ministries.

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5 Responses to Review: Critical Issues in Ecclesiology

  1. Audrey Rogers says:

    You write: Jenson’s brief discussion of the church as the Bride of Christ was marred for this reader by the absence of any acknowledgment that this metaphor poses difficulties for feminist theologians.
    Can you say more?

    • The metaphor of the church as the Bride of Christ emerged from a patriarchal society, and so it most naturally tends towards essentialist imagery about women and patriarchal, non-egalitarian imagery about marriage. Thus, some care is required when working with this metaphor from the perspective of feminist theology; and it is certainly of ancient enough tradition and beautiful enough associations to be worth preserving and re-imagining.

      Sadly, Jenson’s essay does no such re-imagining. For example, its description of courtship emphasizes the agency and intention of the suitor over against the docile compliance of the beloved:

      Or again, no courtship is without the suitor’s moral intention for the one courted: if the suitor does not tell the beloved what he hopes for from her, he is either an automaton, a dolt, or a sophisticated tyrant. The Lord provides his beloved with the Torah.

      I’m not sure which I find more disturbing in this passage: the notion that only a fool or a tyrant would fail to instruct his supposed beloved, or the implication that a husband’s word should be his wife’s law.

      The essay closes with the observation that

      …the Old Testament’s discourse of Israel as the Lord’s bride achieves its grandest development and force in Hosea’s and Ezekiel’s depiction of old Israel as the Lord’s faithless bride, indeed his whoring bride.

      The image of a “whoring bride” is an intrinsically difficult text when viewed from a feminist perspective. I would not suggest that it should simply be dismissed out of hand, because it is, after all, a powerful scriptural image; but it is problematic, and I should like to see those problems at least acknowledged in passing, even if one is not going to engage with them.

      • Audrey Rogers says:

        Thanks, Vicky. Obviously not having had the benefit (?) of reading the essay in question, I needed to know a bit more about the issue you apparently justly took with it.
        I also resonated to your comment that the ‘bridal’ imagery has depth that should not be dismissed too easily despite its misuses over the centuries.
        I do this based on the mystical tradition which I think is the only valid lens through which to view this image. The church- indeed all creation- each of us- must assume a feminine stance in relation to the Holy Mystery- a total and absolute ‘fiat’. John of the Cross takes this much further in his sexual imagery.

  2. Pingback: The Bride of Christ: a feminist reading | Gaudete Theology

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