Reflections on Gustafson’s Treasure in Earthen Vessels

Gustafson, J.M. Treasure in Earthen Vessels: the Church as a Human Community. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. 2009.

(This little book was first published in 1961, but has languished for most of the past fifty years, while model-based ecclesiologies dominated the field. Over the past ten years, the turn taken by some ecclesiologists to the historic and concrete, accompanied by theological engagement with the social sciences, has brought it renewed attention. This essay discusses only the first and final chapters.)

James M. Gustafson outlines a social interpretation of the church, emphasizing its commonalities with other human communities and corresponding susceptibility to analysis by the social sciences. His admitted bias towards the social sciences as a starting point and hermeneutic, over against a more theological, biblical, or traditional starting point, is proposed as a necessary remedy to the tendency to write ecclesiology exclusively in doctrinal terms, near-universal at the time of its first writing and still common today.

He notes that a social interpretation is not opposed to a theological understanding, because “at every point one might consider the meaning of the social and historical processes in the light of Christian belief about divine action through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.” (13)

By examining first what the church has in common with all other human communities (such as history, institutional structure, politics, membership, and purpose), then what distinguishes it in human terms, then reflecting on both the commonalities and distinctions from a theological perspective, Gustafson demonstrates a methodology for holding together ecclesiology from below and from above. Furthermore, in this way, certain of the church’s characteristics become more apparent, including its susceptibilities to sin: an important contribution to practical ecclesiology, especially in these days when scandal divides and distresses the church.

I found most interesting in chapter 1 his discussion of the subjective and objective aspects of church membership, and the processes by which persons become members and experience their membership in a human community. This discussion takes place in the section on common language as a defining characteristic of membership: language here in the broad sense of a common vocabulary with commonly understood meanings.

He draws on Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber for their concept of Verstehen, or subjective understanding (11), as an explanatory framework for the process of Christian initiation. Although he does not use that term, he notes that persons who are born and raised within a community acquire the objective aspects of membership purely by exposure, and can be taught the community’s interpretation of these aspects: in other words, children who grow up in the community are exposed to its stories, and grow up knowing them. However, such persons must at some point personally appropriate them. This personal appropriation of communal meaning motivates the commitment to live according to the discipline of the community, and generates loyalty to the community.

The social interpretation of the church is developed in chapters two through seven; in chapter eight, Gustafson returns to the question of social and theological interpretations, examining how to hold this tension without collapsing it. He proposes institution and koinonia as prototypes of the social and theological interpretations of the church, and demonstrates by analysis of significant movements at the Reformation that neither doctrinal nor social reductionism are adequate. He describes the potential dangers of both extremes, again with illustrations from the history of the church.

Near the end of chapter eight, he raises two related questions: if God appears to be an unnecessary hypothesis from the purely human, social perspective, how do we (from above) understand the Christian teachings about “divine causality and governance”, and how do we (from below) understand the “religious meaning and significance” of the world we observe and the events of our lives.

His solution, to which he can only briefly point, involves a paradigmatic shift from the “God of the gaps” (although he does not use that phrase) to the “God [who] acts in history.” He notes that theologians from Aquinas to Whitehead have been satisfied by an understanding that God “uses the realm of the natural and the social as an agency or a mask for [God’s] presence and will towards [people].” The biblical witness also affirms that God uses “the human and the historical” throughout salvation history. (108-10)

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