Practical Prophetic Ecclesiology (Part 2)

nicholas-healy1In chapter two, Healy addresses what he calls “blueprint ecclesiologies.” His vision for ecclesiology is that it “can aid the church’s efforts by reflecting theologically upon its concrete identity” (25). Healy moves on to focus on what he considers the ecclesiological styles of the last century: 1) an attempt to encapsulate in a single word or phrase the most essential characteristic of the church; 2) construing the church as having a bipartite structure; 3) these last two elements are combined into a systematic and theoretical form of normative ecclesiology; 4) a tendency to relfect upon the church in abstraction from its concrete identity; and 5) a tendency to present idealized accounts of the church (26).

Healy spends significant time reflecting upon Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church, focusing on number 1 above. The single words or phrases modern theologians have suggested, as mapped by Dulles are: sacrement, herald, institution, mystical communion, servant, and Dulles’ own suggestion, community of disciples (27). One need not reflect long to realize the possible dangers of such approaches – relativizing ecclesiology around a category which certainly will reflect aspects of the church, but probably will certainly fail to encapsulate ecclessiology in its entirety. From here it becomes clear what some of Healy’s presuppositions are: First, he claims that, “The impression is given – no doubt in many cases a false one – that theologians believe that it is necessary to get our thinking about the church right first, after which we can go on to put our theory into practice” (36). In light of this remark, the “modern” ecclesiologies, in Healy’s view, tend towards a description of the eschatological form of the church. Therefore,

The church in via has characteristics of its own that are quite different from the church triumphant and which prevent it from being described predominantly in terms of perfection…As a consequence, blueprint ecclesiologies frequently display a curious inability to acknowledge the complexities of ecclesial life in its pilgrim state” (37).

Following upon his reflection on the church in via, Healy claims, “Ecclesiology is not about the business of finding the single right way to think about the church, of developing a blueprint suitable for all times and places. Rather, I propose that its function is to aid the concrete church in performing its tasks of witness and pastoral care within what I will call its ‘ecclesiological context’ (38). Therefore,

An image or concept is not the starting point for ecclesiological inquiry so much as the reflection of a decision as to how best to explicate that inquiry’s conclusions…The primary concern of ecclesiology should not be to explicate a particular model but to make sound judgments upon the ‘everything else.’ Putting it boldly, ecclesiologists have something rather like a prophetic function in the church. They reflect theologically and therefore critically upon the church’s concrete identity in order to help boast in its Lord, and boast only in its Lord…Contextual ecclesial praxis informs ecclesiology, and ecclesiology informs contextual ecclesial praxis, in a practical hermeneutical circle” (46).

So what is the upshot for a project like this? Do you think he has a valid concern? My initial inclination is that he may be sharpening the contrasts a bit between a “theological” analysis and what he calls the “practical prophetic,” but it will be hard to know until I get to the rest of the book. Also (again, this could be addressed later in the volume), I find it hard to know what it means that ecclesiology is not about finding a “single right way to think about the church,” when Healy assumes from the outset that ecclesiology aids the church in “performing its tasks of witness and pastoral care.” These concerns seem to stem from a theoretical concept of what church has to be, that one could say is a “model,” albeit lacking an image. I’m fine with this, but it does seem to push against the sharp contrast he has drawn. Any thoughts?


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