Thoughts on Healy’s Church, World and the Christian Life, intro and ch 1

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

Healy argues that ecclesiology has tended to emphasize the theoretical or spiritual aspect of the church, and insufficiently engaged with the church’s sinfulness and weaknesses. It is thus of little use to the concrete lived reality of the church, and susceptible to the particular sins of idolatry and pride. He identifies witness to Jesus Christ and pastoral care of its members as the two normative tasks of the church, the latter oriented towards the normative task of discipleship proper to the church’s members, and proposes that ecclesiology should be evaluated by the effectiveness with which it guides the church in carrying out these two normative tasks in its contemporary social context. This context includes an ecumenical understanding of the church, and a pluralist culture suspicious of absolute truth claims. He emphasizes the need for consistency between doctrine and practice; a proper role for apologetics; and practices that guard against triumphalism on the one hand, and voluntarism on the other.

Healy defines the uniqueness of the church as twofold: “sociologically unique” by its explicit orientation to the person of Jesus Christ, and “theologically unique” by its constitutive dependence on “the Spirit of Christ in its midst.” (9) He later elaborates:

“To the extent — and only to the extent — that the church, in the Spirit, orientates itself to the Father through Jesus the Christ, it is superior to all other religious and non-religious bodies. Its orientation, whether successful or not, to what it believes to be the ultimate truth makes the church unique. 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. To help them understand and achieve this goal, as well as to respond to Christ who made it possible, the church has developed practices and institutions that foster the appropriate dispositions and decisions. Hence the means to the goal make possible a way of life that is, in significantly concrete respects, distinctive. The church is guided by the Scriptural witness and by the Spirit to be the uniquely explicit witness to Jesus of Nazareth.” (18)

This grounds the church as intrinsically trinitarian, which is important, and creates a theoretical structure in which the concrete practices and institutions of the church are clearly connected to its fundamental identity and orientation.

Healy’s focus on the church as oriented towards God while being just as immersed in sinful confusion as the rest of creation resonates with James Alison’s presentation of the church as oriented towards the receiving its identity from Jesus Christ while still in the process of recognizing, and disentangling itself from, the scandal and rivalry of sin. I particularly like his suggestion that the church should cultivate corporate practices that remind us of our corporate sinfulness.

Healy critiques modern ecclesiology for constructing “a systematic and theoretical form of normative ecclesiology” which is based on the assumptions that the church has two natures and that a single image can adequately capture its “most essential characteristic”; concentrates on the church in the abstract; and therefore produces “idealized accounts of the church.” (26) He observes that this method, with its focus on models, essentials, and abstractions, betrays a tacit assumption that we must “get our thinking about the church right first, after which we can go on to put our theory into practice.” (36) He notes that this unstated theological move has been accompanied by an absence of any comprehensive analysis or even description of the practices of the church; I suggest that this absence both facilitated the theological emphasis, and is partially explained by it.

An important consequence of the focus on the ideal is that it “undervalue[s] thereby the theological significance of the genuine struggles of the church’s membership to live as disciples within the less-than-perfect church and within societies that are often unwilling to overlook the church’s flaws.” (37) This observation is worth lifting up especially today, in the context of the papal interregnum, the daily discussions of the papabile, and the ever-increasing evidence that the church hierarchy is out of touch with the church laity. I find its emphasis on genuine struggle to be a validating echo of my own experience, and the notion that this struggle might have theological significance to be surprising, plausible, and encouraging.

Healy argues convincingly that the model-based approach to ecclesiology is fundamentally and intrinsically inadequate because it is inconsistent with both the pluriform testimony of the New Testament and the dynamic perichoretic effects of the doctrine of the Trinity, which “requires us to keep shifting our perspective so that we view a theological locus like the doctrine of the church in relation to one and then another person of the Trinity, as well as to the Trinity as such.” (34)

In his discussion of the ecclesiological context, which he defines broadly as everything in or about the church that influences it, Healy identifies the theological imagination, judgment, agenda, and meta-narrative of the theologian as important influences on ecclesiological work. Judgment in particular opens out into a broader, interrelated set of hermeneutics for interpreting scripture, tradition, church history, and the ways in which God is present to God’s people. All of these tacitly and strongly influence both the selection and the construal of any model of the church, and must therefore be engaged explicitly if progress is to be made.

This reminds me of a key finding from my study of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant perspectives on Paul’s letter to the Romans. I’d originally intended to perform the analysis in terms of the traditional and well-known disputes about justification, regeneration, sanctification, faith, and works, but had to abandon that approach because it was perfectly clear that different commentaries were defining these and other traditional terms taken from the Pauline corpus in different ways (sometimes differently in different contexts), with varying degrees of breadth and nuance, and in light of varying presuppositions. Meaningful theological discussion cannot occur without agreement on the meaning of key terms; in both cases, the disagreements tend to be hidden “offstage” as it were, in the contexts and interpretations of the theological prolegomena.

The “practical-prophetic” of the book’s subtitle appears to be advanced over against the overly theoretical, idealized normative “blueprint ecclesiologies” that this chapter indicts. But Healy does not thereby deny that ecclesiology has a normative function; one wonders whether the word prophetic was selected to replace normative as much for its alliteration as its greater scriptural resonances, for it appears to mean mostly the same thing: ecclesiology is to be prophetic by calling the church back to its normative tasks. The more important word here appears to be “practical,” and it does not indicate that ecclesiology is a sub-discipline of practical rather than systematic theology; rather, it signals a turn to “practical reasoning” (46), over against theoretical reasoning:

“[Ecclesiologists] reflect theologically and therefore critically upon the church’s concrete identity in order to help it boast in its Lord, and boast only in its Lord. They attempt to assess the church’s witness and pastoral care in light of scripture and in relation to a theological analysis of the contemporary ecclesiological context. They propose changes in the church’s concrete identity that will conserve, reform, or more radically restructure it, in order to help it embody its witness more truthfully and better demonstrate the superiority of its way of life. Contextual ecclesial praxis informs ecclesiology, and ecclesiology informs contextual ecclesial praxis, in a practical hermeneutical circle.” (46, emphasis mine)

This methodology orients ecclesiology towards what the church does as a manifestation of what the church is. It is thus grounded in mission, and furthermore, aimed directly at detecting, identifying, and remediating inconsistencies in the life of the church. As such, it eminently qualifies as a systematic ecclesiology.

It does omit any grounding in eschatology, but Healy addresses this in the next chapter via the theodramatic horizon, a concept he draws from von Balthasar and develops in a practical-prophetic direction. The eschaton then appears offstage, as it were: it is known to be there, as the assured happy ending to the drama, but not bearing directly on any action in the story. Thus it is the pilgrim church that is the primary subject of Healy’s ecclesiology.

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