Thoughts on Flanagan’s “Methods, Images, and Systematic Ecclesiology”

In this first chapter of his book Communion, Diversity, and Salvation, Brian Flanagan reviews the modern development of method in ecclesiology, and draws on the work of Gustafson, Healy, Komonchak, Ormerod, Rahner, and Rikhof to defend his criteria for a systematic ecclesiology as one that defines and depends on stable terms and relationships; is explicitly and critically informed by other theological disciplines, philosophy, and the social sciences; and embraces both the eschatological and the historical reality of the church.[1]

As Flanagan points out, much of 20th century ecclesiology centered around the use of models or metaphors of the church: either a single primary model asserted as normative, such as the communion/koinonia model dominant in contemporary Roman Catholic and ecumenical discourse, or a plurality of models to provide balance, such as Avery Dulles’ classic Models of the Church. This methodology was a reaction to the earlier limited modes of “canonical legal reflection” and “apologetic scriptural prooftexting”(2) that dominated the 19th and early 20th centuries, attempting to redress their emphasis on visible institutional structures to the neglect of the “graced, invisible, and ‘supernatural’ reality”(3) of the church. While this approach led to a scripturally-rooted flowering of the theological imagination, and was especially fruitful ecumenically as separated traditions rediscovered and rejoiced in their “shared ecclesial imagination,” (7) this period constituted an essential but essentially pre-systematic period of theological reflection on the church.

Models of the church are more akin to metaphor than to the theoretical models constructed and validated by the physical sciences, and so the very nature of metaphorical language is an obstacle: metaphor is an element of poetic discourse, while systematic theology is akin to scientific discourse. Both convey truth, but they do so in very different registers and by very different means.

The shortcomings of this approach for systematic ecclesiology noted by Flanagan are twofold. First, these models are not self-validating: in Rikhof’s terms, competing models require some external “ecclesiological ‘basic statement’ [to] function as an interpretation key and coherence criterion”(11-12) by which to choose among them, and these are frequently neither explicitly stated nor integral to the proposed models. Thus, implicit assumptions and theological judgments frequently shape the development, discussion, and assessment of these models.

Secondly, they tend towards an overemphasis on the graced or eschatological reality of the church at the expense of its historical reality. This frequently results in beautiful and inspiring descriptions of the Church that are utterly unrecognizable as bearing any resemblance to any church community we actually have anything to do with.[2] Komonchak notes that for all its flaws, the canonical-legal approach did at least make use of “the social theory available at the time” (17-18): by describing individuals, groups, and the relationships between them, canon law functioned as this social theory.

Any contemporary systematic ecclesiology must be informed by contemporary advances in the social sciences in order to effectively and credibly give an account of, and suggest practical guidance for, the lived reality of the church. Exactly how theology should incorporate the social sciences is a matter of some discussion. The reduction of ecclesiology to social science would be a regression to the earlier neglect of the church’s graced reality camouflaged as scientific progress; the rejection of modern social science out of suspicion of its perceived atheistic pedigree would be regression without such camouflage, a retreat to rather than a ressourcement from premodern traditions. To avoid these two extremes, Ormerod advocates for a dialectic engagement; Healy for cautious adaptation through a hermeneutic of suspicion. (18-20)

As we shall see, the development of mimetic theology from mimetic theory presents a specific solution to this general question. The development of a mimetic ecclesiology is facilitated by the existence of a body of work in related theological disciplines which have theologically appropriated a particular anthropological insight in a consistent fashion.


[1] All page references in this essay are to Flanagan; his sources that I discuss here are listed below.

[2] As any lay Catholic who has read chapter 27 of Lumen Gentium will almost certainly agree.


Dulles, Avery, SJ. Models of the Church. exp. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1987.

Gustafson, James M. Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community. Chicago: University of Chicago. 1961.

Healy, Nicholas M. Church, World, and the Christian Life. Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine. Cambridge:Cambridge University. 2000.

Komonchak, Joseph. Foundations in Ecclesiology. Supplementary Issue of the Lonergan Workshop Journal. Volume 11. Fred Lawrence, editor. Boston College. 1995. http://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/foundations-jak.pdf, http://jakomonchak.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/foundations-2-jak.pdf. Accessed 3 February 2013.

Ormerod, Neil. “A Dialectical Engagement with the Social Sciences in an Ecclesiological Context.” Theological Studies 66:840. 2005.

_______. “Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology.” Theological Studies 63:3-30. 2002.

Rahner, Karl. “God is no Scientific Formula.” Grace in Freedom, trans. Hilda Graef. New York: Herger and Herder. 1969.

_______. “Mystery.” Sacramentum Mundi: an Encyclopedia of Theology. vol 4. New York: Herder and Herder. 1969.

_______. “The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology.” Theological Investigations 4:36-73. New York: Crossroads. 1966.

Rikhof, Henry. The Concept of Church: A Methodological Inquiry into the Use of Metaphors in Ecclesiology. Sheperdstown, WV: Patmos, 1981.

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One Response to Thoughts on Flanagan’s “Methods, Images, and Systematic Ecclesiology”

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Haight’s “Systematic Ecclesiology” | Gaudete Theology

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