A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is:

The word church can indicate[:]
a) the mystical body, which is indeed a perfect and consolidated communion of believers with Christ, their sole Head, and with one another in Him. This is the spiritual kingdom of Luther and Calvin.

b) it can mean all the living Christian professors in any place or worldwide, the totality of believing persons, the people of God.

This is what the medievals called the corpus christianum. In this sense it signifies a multitude, and this multitude is the most fundamental temporal profile of the mystical body, though, since it includes persons whose profession is false, it is not coincident with it. Prior to any organization, the church is just believing people; the section of humanity which has accepted Christ. It can be called the visible church, except that it is not in itself temporally gathered and ordered; it is the visibility of the invisible church. “If you have done it unto the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.” This earthly multitude organizes itself for all sorts of purposes, including worship and civic government, and it underlies all those offices and functions.

Neither the local assemblies nor the ministerium “mediate” any believer’s relation to Christ. Christ is directly laid hold of by faith, and he is the sole Mediator. This fact establishes the corpus christianum as basic, and prior to any further churchly articulation. These articulations are indispensable aids and means to growing in faith and holiness, but they are in no way interposed between the believer and Christ. One is united to Christ immediately by faith; this immediate relation makes one a member of the Church, in the perfect sense of the mystical body, and public profession of the Name makes one a member of the corpus christianum.

c)the local assemblies of Word and worship, which reflect the unity of the mystical body but are not coextensive with it, and lack its purity.

These are the visible churches most properly speaking. It can also mean these visible assemblies taken collectively; but this collective sense implies no distinct political existence or organization, it is a class term.

d)by synecdoche, “the church” can also means the representatives of the people of God in sacred matters, the elders of the church, the official ministerium; and by extension, the developed organizational apparatus associated with ministerial and missionary functions.

e) by metonymy, “church” can of course signify a building dedicated to worship and teaching.

And in terms of canon, the magisterial position is quite clear:

While reason is the necessary tool for reading the Holy Scriptures, it is still, nevertheless, the Scriptures which are the only infallible spiritual authority. This is true because of their nature: they are breathed out by God. And as God’s Word, there can be no standard above them to which they must answer. Rather, our job is to listen to the Word. As such, the human element is wholly responsive, seeking to clearly identify the content of that Word and then accurately apply it where appropriate. This is why the historico-grammatical method of hermeneutics must remain as the pillar of our exegesis. Only it can reasonably demonstrate the intended meaning of the Scriptures, and it can do so objectively and perspicuously.

On the matter of councils, it says:

Protestants have always defined these conciliar definitions as actions of guiding discursive articulation of consensual exegesis on controverted points,[3] and not as decrees to be accepted heteronomously.

There’s not a lot I have to add to this contrast, except to note that the postmodern community-centered approach to ecclesiology very nicely expresses the old Anabaptist position, and, in other words, does not advance the debate beyond the 16th century in any significant way. Smith’s particular variation adds a slight twist: the tradition of the Nicene church is normative for the contemporary churches. But this only moves his position a little further from the Anabaptist and closer to, essentially, the Eastern Orthodox view. (Indeed, an important point to ask of his position is why he would think the Nicene traditions of scripture, liturgy, icons, etc., are canonical, but the establishment of a clerocratic episcopacy is not; or else, why he would not simply join the Orthodox church.) But in the end we still have four main choices: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Magisterial Protestantism, and the movements of the Radical Reformation.