Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Functional vs. Ontological Ecclesiology: Is that really the Question?

At a recent gathering of Wesleyan and Free Methodist theological educators, ecclesiological questions provided the common theme of the papers and discussion. During the course of the conversation, a conceptual distinction was introduced between functional and ontological ecclesiologies. The basic contrast is between understandings of the church which focus on her doing (function) and understandings of the church which focus on her being (ontology). Now, of course, no one would advocate reducing the church to either her doing or her being. But one can certainly detect tendencies in either direction among the many ecclesiological options available.

As you might have guessed, given the reductive connotation of the word "functional," this distinction often carries with it an agenda: namely, that we should moved from a "mere" functional ecclesiology to a "more robust" ontological ecclesiology. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription often trades on a descriptive narrative of Methodism, which supposedly lost its ontological grounding upon its break from the Anglican Communion. "Beware of treating the church as a mere means to some other end," is the watchword of a ontological ecclesiology.

But, this distinction could in fact be just as easily used to argue in the opposite direction. One could argue that the nature church should be defined by its purpose rather than the other way around. In Wesleyan circles, this prescription trades on the same narrative of Methodism told in a different light: the church was most alive when it was free to focus wholly on its mission without concern for ecclesial preservation. "Beware of an inward focus on the church," is the watchword of a functional ecclesiology.

Now this conversation could go on forever. There is no obvious resolution. The best arguments are usually based on reactions to the abuses of the other extreme. These kinds of arguments are ultimately unpersuasive, and perhaps even pernicious because they just keep the pendulum swinging without moving us forward.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the distinction in the end does not illumine very much. For instance, advocates of both functional and ontological ecclesiologies speak regularly of the mission of the church. In fact, the most extreme forms of each see themselves as representing a missional ecclesiology: the one in terms of mission as a divinely willed activity to which the church contributes in some way, the other in terms of mission as participation in the being of God and God's people. And yet despite these differences, both approaches can be and are used to validate the same old divisive ecclesial options (sacerdotal, evangelical, secularist). If such a basic concept as mission can be so easily shared by the two in such a way that the same old patterns are perpetuated, it is questionable whether the distinction really achieves all that much. You get a lot of idle talk about the church and its mission that in the end serves to justify one's agenda, whether it be liturgical renewal, evangelism programs, community service, etc.

In the face of these problems, I would like to suggest that the functional-ontological distinction itself is fundamentally flawed. The flaw is the presumed disjunction between being and act. Rather, the church's being is in her act. The church has no being prior to its active life as sent into the world as witnesses to the risen Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus it has no "being" which can be cultivated without reference to her "function." And yet she is not "merely functional" in the sense of a dispensable instrument used toward the accomplishment of an end. The active life of missionary witness is a life lived in fellowship with God, which is the end God has in mind for his people and the world. So in her act the church lives and moves and has her being. I think the disjunction between being and act should be dropped, and with it the notion that one must choose between functional and ontological ecclesiology.

So the next time someone asks me whether I have a functional or ontological ecclesiology, I am going to say that I reject the premise of the question (if I'm feeling feisty) or just answer yes to both and explain why (if I'm sensing the need to be more gracious).

Any thoughts?
  • Have you encountered this distinction before?
  • Do you find it helpful? How so?
  • Have you tended to lean one way or the other? Why?
  • Can we speak generically of an "ontological" view of anything without specifying what kind of "ontology" we are presupposing?
  • Is the disjunction of being and act a problem?
  • How does the uniting of being and act bear on the question of mission?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ecclesiology and Soteriology

When thinking about the church in a genuinely theological fashion (a.k.a., doing ecclesiology), one must think of the connections between our understanding of the church and our understanding of other important doctrinal topics (or loci).

One particular connection that has been historically significant is that between soteriology and ecclesiology. This connection is brought into sharp relief by a favorite quote of mine. Some of my friends will have to forgive me this indulgence, for this is a quote to which I often refer but has not yet made its way onto drulogion. I offer it to all readers, whether it is new to you or not, as a point of discussion:

"The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine's doctrine of grace over Augustine's doctrine of the Church" (B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, pp. 321-22).

There is much that could be said to unpack this quote as a historical thesis. For instance, one would need to address the tensions within Augustine developmentally, i.e., his sacerdotal ecclesiology was an early commitment which was only intensified during the Donatist controversy, whereas his predestinarian soteriology was a later development emerging out of his anti-Pelagian polemics. Or it could also be noted the sense in which the sacramental soteriology of the medieval period could be considered as the triumph of Augustine's doctrine of church over the his doctrine of grace, and not merely the two existing side-by-side. It would also need to be acknowledged that the Reformers were not merely applying Augustine's soteriology critically to other doctrines, but were in fact radicalizing his soteriology along a trajectory which made its critical function possible and necessary. Finally, the reason why such a radical Augustinianism requires a rejection of a sacerdotal ecclesiology must be explained (e.g., if salvation rests in God alone, then the church cannot be the dispenser of grace).

But all these historical points of exposition and discussion, interesting though they are in their own right, lead to the much more important systematic insight: the intimate connection between soteriology and ecclesiology. One's understanding of grace and one's understanding of the church necessarily impinge on one another. This connection took a certain form in the reformation period. But whatever one's commitments, the connection is unavoidable. Perhaps today's ecclesiological discussions (polity, missiology, worship, ordination, membership, etc.) need to attend to our soteriological assumptions. Who knows, this may illumine our differences and in the end light the path forward.

Any thoughts?
What do you think of this quote historically?
What do you think of it theologically?
How do your soteriological and ecclesiological commitments connect?
How should the logic of the connection run: from soteriology to ecclesiology, or vice versa?
What other ecclesiological connections ought to be made?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Sanctified from what? Sanctified for what?

I have been thinking about sanctification lately. As is my custom, I've been asking "grammatical" questions of our talk of sanctification.

First of all, if sanctification in its most basic sense means "to set apart" or "to separate," then sanctification must necessarily be "from" something. To be sanctified is to be set apart "from" x, y or z.

But once the preposition "from" is introduced, the question of what we are sanctified "for" must also be addressed. We are not only set apart "from" x, y or z, but also set apart "for" a, b or c.

What is of interest to me is how our understanding of that from which we are sanctified necessarily conditions our understanding of that for which we are sanctified.

For instance, if we are sanctified from ordinariness, then we are sanctified for usefulness. I am drawing here on the metaphor of ancient worship, whereby certain objects were "set apart" for use in sacred spaces. Something which is ordinary (e.g., goat), is set apart for a special use in worship (e.g., sacrifice). In a similar way, Christians are sanctified by the Spirit from their ordinariness to be used by God, in his service and for his glory. The risk in this language is to treat sanctification as some kind of priveledged status or sanctified persons as utterly cut off from the secular world. But the basic idea is a right one that has a place in an acccount of sanctification.

But we can and should go further. If we are sanctified from sin, then we are sanctified for righteousness. Of course, here we run into the issue of how to define sin. We can speak of both sin as nature and sin as acts. If we think of sin in terms of our sinful nature, then our sanctification means our being set apart for a righteous nature. Whether this means we are given a brand new nature or that the sinful aspects of our good nature are cleansed will depend on how we understand the effects of sin on our created human nature. If we think of sin in terms of our sinful acts, then our sanctification means our being set apart for righteous acts. Whether this means obedience to law or having right intentions will depend on how we understand what makes an act sinful. Of course, talk of nature and actions cannot be wholly separated. But it can be seen from the above how the understanding of that from which we are sanctified necessarily conditions our understanding of that for which we are sanctified.

Any thoughts?
Do you agree that the "from" of sanctification conditions the "for" of sanctification?
What are some other things from which we are sanctified?
What are some other things for which we are sanctified?
Is there a tendency to separate the "from" and the "for" of sanctification?
Why is this?
What happens when we do this?
Can you think of any "froms" in our talk of sanctification that need to be filled out by a "for"? Any "fors" that need to be connected with a "from"?