In the essay On Evangelical Ecclesiology, John Webster begins his ruminations on ecclesiology by making a fundamental distinction: the doctrine of God and the doctrine of the church are fundamentally distinct, and it is the latter that is grounded in the former. In this way, Webster believes that it is possible for dogmatics to find the proper median between the two dominant ecclesiologies of the day: 1) Low Protestant (and particularly American) ecclesiology, and 2) “Communion Ecclesiology”.
In Webster’s thought, communion ecclesiology, the modern emphasis on the language of ‘communion’ as the eternal substratum of everything in theology from the trinitarian relations (most basically a communion of persons) to soteriology (a reuniting of communion between man and God), eventually breaks down because of its dogmatic structure and it metaphysical commitments. For Webster, the reliance upon ‘communion’ language (especially in Eucharistic practice) ends up confusing the radical difference between the God who does the saving work and those who are its recipients. Salvation becomes a sociological event rather than a cosmic and divine one. Additionally, the metaphysical construct of “participation” that makes up much of ‘communion ecclesiology’ also blurs the lines of the Creator/creature distinction. Rather than speaking of an ontological mix, dogmatics should instead speak of fellowship, for this term assumes the entire economy of God’s action (from Election to Consummation), rather than simply the protological aspects. In short, a robust ecclesiology must first assume a robust doctrine of God, and this relationship must produce an ontology of human being that is dissimilar, although not unrelated, from that of God.
In the second half of the essay, Webster simply translates this logic into the dynamics of the visibility of the church, and the vocation of the church as witness. In the former, it is the invisibility of the Holy Spirit that is constitutive of the visibility of the social church, and, in the latter, the church’s character as witness is not a constitutive sign, but an ostensive one. Again, it is the doctrine of God that upholds the doctrine of the church.
In The Self Organizing Power of the Gospel, Webster begins by asking the question: “what truth about the Gospel of God does the Episcopate, by its place in the one Body, declare?” And his answer does not come by way of an apologetic defense, but from dogmatic implication: the ministry of oversight is a necessary implication of the gospel itself. When church order is understood as ingredient to the act of God in Christ in the world, then the true nature of the ministry is comprehended; one that is distinct from God, yet intimately related.
From this an ecclesiological maxim surfaces: a properly theological account of the ministerial office will maximize Christology and pneumatology, while relativizing the order of the episcopacy. In this sense, the acts of Christ set a pattern for the church, as opposed to a relationship of pure imitation. In the same way that a proper account of human ontology necessitates the being and act of God, a robust ecclesiology must always first speak of God before speaking of itself. God is the proper ground for all speech about the church and its role in the world.
My initial reaction to these ruminations on contemporary ecclesiology is one of immediate acceptance and delight. I wholeheartedly agree with Prof. Webster’s concerns about the overuse and abuse of communion oriented language meant to replace the old ‘outdated’ metaphysics of Medieval theology. However, does this mean that we need to simply return to the old ways of theological metaphysics? It seems that Webster would have us do just this – return to talking about the aseitic nature of God and the contingency of creation to ground our speech about the communion. Instead, should we not look to a robust theology of the cross (itself founded upon the centrality of the doctrine of divine election) to ground our talk about God (and, consequently, the church)? And does this not have radical implications for the notions of aseity, immutability, and sovereignty as classically conceived? I tend to think that it does…