Thursday, August 11, 2011

Models of the church (after Dulles)

One of the surprises and delights of having a blog is making contact with people around the world. In particular, one very kind person in the United States sent me - some two years ago!! - a copy of Avery Dulles' "Models of the Church". To my shame I haven't finished reading it yet (about 1/4 left - which is how it has been for a while; now is clearly the time to finish it off) but I have grasped the main models. I thought it would be worth sharing them, as I want to pursue the discussion generated by yesterday's post in some detail.

Dulles outlines five ways of understanding what church is:

1 - the institution, which in practice means the officers and legal apparatus. This form identifies the actions of the Holy Spirit with the actions of the visible institution.
2 - mystical communion, an invisible but recognisable presence of the Holy Spirit, which unites the true church across denominational boundaries (and beyond).
3 - a sacrament, the outward sign of the inward grace, a principal means by which God's grace is made manifest in the world.
4 - a herald, the place where the gospel is proclaimed and the world is called to repentance, and a community is formed in response.
5 - a servant community, found wherever sacrificial love is acted out in places of need.

Each one of these ways of understanding the church contains important elements of what church needs to be; the issue is which one is given primacy in order to integrate the different elements. For me (and I think this is the way Dulles is going) the important element is the third - the sacramental model. I think this provides a proper balance between the first two, is dependent on the fourth in order to be valid (ie the gospel is rightly preached) and necessarily has the fifth as an outcome.

If the first is given priority you get sterile legalism, if the second is given priority you get lukewarm sentimentalism, if the fourth is given priority you get 'the ten thousand things' and if the fifth is given priority you get a renamed social services. If the generating impetus for the church is the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus then the nature of the church that he established has to reflect those realities. To my mind, this means that the sacramental understanding of the church - which is the only model which takes the incarnation seriously - has to have primacy.

This will underlie my other posts, forthcoming.


  1. if the fourth is given priority you get 'the ten thousand things'
    I'd like a little more explanation of this (it may be coming in a future post).

  2. 'ten thousand things' is Taoist expression for all the myriad differences in the world; I use it as code for Protestant individualism where each believer (preacher) is their own church

  3. Ah, got it. Though my experience is of churches with a very high view of preaching is that they can be (somewhat oppressively) conformist.

  4. Lose the first "is". No edit function.

    BTW I've also experienced such congregations where there is a very sensitive respect for tradition, catholicity and continuity without stifling uniformity. So I'd say that your point captures one aspect of the worse end of the spectrum.


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