Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World

By Joseph D. Small. Eerdmans. Pp. 242. $35

Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology


By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Eerdmans. Pp. 188. $20

Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church

By James Calvin Davis. Eerdmans. Pp. 226. $25

Beleaguered by crises both beyond its control and of its own making, the Church sorely needs renewal. In an age of scandal, disillusionment, and decline, people have come to realize that church is a terrible hobby, and so ecclesiology must once more state a compelling case for the Church: its nature, its purpose, and its import. Taken in isolation, this trio of books, all by members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), provide interesting enough insights into the Christian community’s calling, but read in concert, they present an interlocking set of answers to this call.

Amy Plantinga Pauw’s Church in Ordinary Time sets forth an account of the church rooted in the mundane realities and patterns of creaturely existence. Pauw, a professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, contends that far too often the Church has lost sight of or tried to obscure its creaturehood. Such transgressions can range from “subordinating the church to individual subjectivity,” as did Schleiermacher and his heirs (pp. 28-31), to “denying the church’s commonality with other creatures,” as in the theologies of John Zizioulas, Robert Jenson, and Stanley Hauerwas (pp. 31-34), or “separating the real church from the visible church,” an offense of which Barth is the prime culprit (pp. 34-36). In contrast, Pauw presents a very earthy picture of the Church, rooted in what it means to be God’s creature. After all, even Jesus Christ was and is Mary’s child.

The book unfolds in three main parts, structured like the articles of the creed: one focuses on a doctrine of creation, the next on Christology and redemption, and the third on the Holy Spirit and church life, including the liturgical year with its themes of “longing” (Advent), “giving” (Christmas), “suffering” (Lent), “rejoicing” (Easter), and “joining hands” (Pentecost).

It is eminently well-written and engaging, and is to be commended especially for its attention to the biblical wisdom literature, bringing an important stream of biblical material into a conversation in which it has typically been neglected. Wisdom literature is especially appropriate for this ordinary-time ecclesiology, for it is here that the mundane realities of creaturely existence are most clear. In this regard, Pauw does for ecclesiology what David Kelsey did for theological anthropology with his Eccentric Existence (Westminster John Knox, 2009).

Along the way, Pauw engages in some good critiques of her Reformed tradition, especially its tendencies away from embodied materiality and toward an invisible church. She also negotiates some important disputes, such as the relationship between the local and the universal in the Church. Here she is especially impressive, noting the danger of a central hegemony that colonizes local expressions of church, even as she notes the danger of fetishizing the local: “the earthen vessel of church is fashioned from local cultural dust, including its cultural toxicities” (p. 112).

Her most central contribution, though, is her commendation of ecclesial humility. We are firmly upon the “creature” side of the Creator-creature distinction. Our tiny finitude in a vast universe, which even in its totality is infinitely less than its Creator, is stated to great effect (pp. 42-51), though her welcome emphasis on the Church’s humanity needs to be accompanied by a recognition that there are divine elements to the Church (pp. 87, 123). She criticizes “ecclesiological docetism” (p. 5), but once the Christological analogy is introduced, it needs to be followed through.

Additionally, it is not at all clear how much of a new perspective this really is. Many of Pauw’s central affirmations (the importance of an eschatological reserve, such that the Church here and now is not the final attainment of God’s kingdom; the provisionality of all earthly forms and structures; and the Church’s solidarity with the world) are all clearly articulated in the Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes. This in itself is not a problem, but it is worth noting, since she presents her vision as a corrective to other perspectives.

Further, while she rightly rejects the idea of an invisible church, she fails to take the effects of church division fully seriously, suggesting that eucharistic sharing can overcome the obstacles of division and that in Pentecost’s light our divisions are fictive and illusory (pp. 103, 152). Yet, given the realities of divided Christendom, this affirmation seems to be little more than wishful thinking.

In a few places she makes tantalizing suggestions but fails to resolve or develop them. One such is the idea that planetary death and the end of our receiving God’s gifts are genuine possibilities, but that they would not contradict God’s faithfulness to his promises (pp. 49-50, 149).

I must note that for a book that eschews theoria in favor of the more practically oriented phronesis (p. 17), Church in Ordinary Time is remarkably short on practical suggestions. This leaves it in a worst of both worlds situation, neither theoretical nor practical. As important and worthy a work as this is (and it is), it needs supplementation.

Less ambitious, but perhaps more coherent and satisfying is Joseph D. Small’s Flawed Church, Faithful God, which attempts to articulate a faithful, mainstream ecclesiology, grounded in the actualities of the world and of church life, rather than in theological abstractions. The Church as an abstraction leads to “disparagement or even contempt for actual churches,” which are seen as “flawed imitations of an immaculate concept … [and] likely to be scorned as shams” (p. 4).

Small wants us to avoid these liabilities and so to think more faithfully and accurately about the Church. In this way, he provides half of the supplementation we were left wanting in Pauw’s work. Flawed Church, Faithful God is theoretical in just the right ways: grounded in careful scholarship, attentive to important distinctions, seeking the intelligibility of its data, yet attentive to data.

Small guides us through 11 chapters covering the nature of the Church, common faith, Word and sacrament, communion ecclesiology, major ecclesial images (body of Christ, people of God), the relation between Judaism and Christianity, the Church’s mission, the Nicene notes of the Church, and hope for the Church.

Along the way, he engages in several wide-ranging considerations of other theological topics, such as the development of the Nicene tradition (pp. 26-34), the importance of the ascension for ecclesiology (pp. 108-112), the life of Christ (pp. 96-103), theological interpretation of the Old Testament in contrast to Marcionism and supersessionism (pp. 126-39), and the doctrine of God (pp. 189-92). These tangents provide serious ballast to the discussion without becoming digressions. They are always in artful service of the book’s core agenda.

Small presents us with a Reformed iteration of Communion ecclesiology: “The congregation gathered around Word and sacrament is the basic form of church, but it is not a sufficient form of church. The gathered congregation is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church only in its essential communion with its Lord and therefore in communion with other gathered congregations” (p. 62).

This Communion ecclesiology is well-grounded in mainstream ecumenical reflection and scholarship. It is Reformed but not provincial, for it attends to developments within and insights from other traditions and communities. Crucially, Small points us to the need for greater theological attention to the congregation or parish (pp. 80–82). I heartily affirm this, but with the proviso that for episcopally ordered churches the life of the congregation is always dependent upon its relation to the bishop. Like Pauw, Small appeals to a Christological analogy for the church, but does so in order suggest that the church is only a human community, a proposal that lends itself to Nestorianism (p. 89).

Small’s most compelling argument comes in his consideration of the Nicene notes of the Church: unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity. It unfolds in three movements. First, he contends that these four marks properly refer to God alone (pp. 189-92). Next, he notes that in each of these areas, the Church misses the mark. Where it should be one, the Church is divided (pp. 194-95).

Here it is worth noting that throughout Small attempts to grapple with the scandal of division and the way it distorts the church’s existence and calls the gospel’s credibility into question (pp. 15-21). Where it should be holy, the Church is conformed to the world (pp. 195-96). Where it should be catholic, the Church is content with fractions of humanity (pp. 196-97). And where it should be caught up in apostolic mission, the Church is domesticated and tame (198).

Yet these indictments are not the total story. In the third movement, Small reads the notes of the Church as vocations and promises to which it can and must respond (pp. 200-08). This is excellent ecclesiological reflection, and of these three books, it is the most substantive and most capable of standing on its own. My firm hope is that, as this work of ecclesiology is couched in a Reformed Protestant idiom, more Protestants would come to embrace its prescriptions.

The final interlocking piece of our ecclesiological puzzle is provided by James Calvin Davis’s Forbearance, which seeks to sketch a vision of the Church as a community of character, and not character generically, but the character needed to sustain communal life in the face of abiding and serious disagreements. Davis outlines a virtue ethic in which Christians cultivate the virtues of humility (chapter 2), patience and hope (3), wisdom (4), faithfulness (5), and friendship (6), and in so doing learn to maintain communion across difference in their common life. As a virtue ethic, his proposals deal more with dispositions and patterns of life than with specifically mandated behaviors, which can all too easily lead to a truncated vision. The virtues provide an expansive and adaptive framework for thinking about church life (pp. 20-21).

While rooted in a liberal Protestant perspective (p. xi), Davis strives to maintain an even tone throughout, offering prescriptions for “conservatives” (chapter 7, focused on “truth”), and “progressives” (chapter 8, focused on “justice”). He asserts these factions must learn to bear with one another in the body of Christ. This is especially welcome, as I see no viable future for the Church that does not involve keeping both progressives and conservatives together for dialogue.

This is a timely work, as the bonds of unity have grown strained, not only for churches but also within our wider society. Davis closes the volume with a vision of the Church’s forbearance as a social witness in a fractured society (chapter 9). As Davis puts it, “The modeling of forbearance is perhaps the best gift the church can give to a political culture that is desperate to learn how to navigate its own differences in healthier ways” (p. 186).

Davis does not pretend that this path will be easy. The path does not remove us from the harshly competitive dimensions of life in community. “Forbearance is not the avoidance of conflict or the abandonment of conviction. Instead, it is a distinctively Christian practice that opens the church to new ways of dealing with difference, rooted in the kind of people God calls us to become” (p. 21). It is ultimately premised upon God’s merciful forbearance toward us, his finite, sinful creatures (p. 13).

Hence, in many ways, this is the liberal Protestant version of Ephraim Radner’s proposals in A Brutal Unity (Baylor, 2012). The cultivation of these virtues leads to and depends upon important theological dispositions, viz., trust in God, humility, patience, and hope, which allow us to submit to God’s working out of his purposes (pp. 29-40, 52-53).

At the same time, serious theological problems attend this work, beginning with its theological foundation. Davis takes his cues from the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, with their admonitions to forbearance within the Christian community. So far so good, except that Davis then makes the untenable suggestion that this forbearance was also to be extended to supporters of the Colossian heresy that prompted Paul’s epistle (p. 13).

This inability to exclude formal heresy is a vein running throughout the book’s argument. Davis expresses ambivalence if not disdain for the Nicene tradition, depicting it as an example of “theological intolerance” (pp. 24–26 [26]). This leads to a serious double standard. In considering whether and where the lines in the sand might be on questions of truth and justice, Davis’s only criterion seems to be Jesus’ standard of inclusivity (p. 148). Regarding questions of truth, we know the line has been crossed when we are no longer as inclusive as Jesus. That is to say, there are no actual doctrinal boundaries.

On the other hand, for questions of justice, overtly racist, homophobic, etc. positions need not be entertained or taken seriously (pp. 172–73). This is not necessarily wrong; such positions should not be granted any legitimacy, but who decides whether these positions are homophobic or racist? To his credit, Davis distinguishes between instances of intentional bigotry and unintentional prejudice, and opines that only the explicitly bigoted be excluded. However, I have seen enough toxic discourse to not really trust our ability to make this distinction in particular cases. All the while, though, he has sketched a vision in which the rejection of the Trinity in Arianism apparently is fine.

That said, Davis’s call to forbearance of difference and the cultivation of the virtues needed to maintain communion in the midst of disagreement is welcome. The focus on virtue theory makes this an eminently practical work, by far the most practical of the three.

I did not find Davis’s account of the Church’s nature particularly compelling, because it rests on shaky-to-insubstantial theological ground, but the practicalities he outlines would fill out the perspectives offered by Pauw and Small quite nicely. At the same time, Forbearance needs theological supplementation, which can be provided by Church in Ordinary Time and Flawed Church, Faithful God.

All in all, these projects show that ecclesiology must be a shared enterprise. It is a work whose scope exceeds the capacities of any one person. Perhaps this reflects the subject matter itself. By the nature of the case, ecclesiology cannot be an individual endeavor, but must be a communal affair.

In these three books we have distinct voices from within a single faith tradition speaking in ways that cry out for supplementation. In some measure they are able to provide it to one another: Pauw with her bold proposals about creaturehood, Davis with his attention to the practical dimensions of church life, and Small with his serious theological ballast.

But ideally, these voices should be joined by ecumenical partners, especially those who could offer an account of the church as a more than merely human community. Ecclesiology cannot be pursued in isolation, either by individuals or by churches. We all have much to offer one another and much to learn.

Eugene R. Schlesinger is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017) and Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (forthcoming from Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2019)

About The Author

Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D., is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the editor of Covenant.

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