Academic journal article Theological Studies

On the Dynamic Relation between Ecclesiology and Congregational Studies

Academic journal article Theological Studies

On the Dynamic Relation between Ecclesiology and Congregational Studies

Article excerpt

ECCLESIOLOGY IS PRESENTLY RESPONDING to two sources of pressure from opposite directions. On the one hand, a more exact knowledge of the historical origins of the church and the variety of forms the church has assumed across its historical life challenge the idea of a normative ecclesiology. On the other hand, emergent churches in all parts of the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, sometimes appear to stand at the margins of being identifiably Christian. These two concerns intersect in the study of some congregations where broad doctrinal claims about the church are being tested by a realistic scrutiny of the concrete political and social dynamisms driving particular churches and the practices of actual congregations. Part of the liveliness of the discipline of ecclesiology today stems from an interaction between the desire to preserve the essential character of the church and the need that it adapt to new historical situations, between a normative concept of the church and the need that it become inculturated in the life of its members.

The foci of these two pressure points are addressed by two distinct subdisciplines of ecclesiology, the one pursuing a normative concept of the church, the other studying its historical manifestations, most concretely in congregational studies. Taking up these lines of force, this article develops a response to the following questions: How does formal academic ecclesiology relate to congregational studies, and vice versa? The article contains two parts. The first assumes the point of view of academic ecclesiology, and from that perspective theorizes on the relationship between these two ecclesiological subdisciplines. The second assumes the perspective of the discipline of congregational studies and reflects on how that field of study bears on the more general understanding of the church as such. The two probes into this relationship yield remarkably similar conclusions concerning the mutual relevance and influence that each discipline should have on the other in advancing a more holistic understanding of church.

PART 1

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF GENERAL ECCLESIOLOGY

We begin this analysis of the relationship between general or formal ecclesiology and congregational studies from the broader vantage point of the former as distinct from the particular focus of congregational studies. (2) This part is divided into three sections. The first establishes further the methodological presuppositions from which these ecclesiological reflections arise. From that basis it formulates an understanding of the relationship between general ecclesiology and congregational studies in four theses. The third section will then test those theses by entering into dialogue with an earlier writing of James Nieman on congregational studies and ecclesiology on the specific topic of the marks of the church.

Ecclesiology from Below

This first foray into ecclesiological language, especially regarding presuppositions and method, is designed to lay out some of the presuppositions and principles in the study of the church that govern part 1 of this article. Ecclesiological method and language are far from standardized. Thus we begin by mapping the field on which this particular game will be played. This may be accomplished by a contrast between ecclesiology from above and from below and a consideration of some of the consequences that flow from a method that proceeds from below.

The phrases "from above" and "from below" in ecclesiology operate by analogy with their use in Christology. The key word in both terms is "from"; the phrases designate a point of departure and a method, not content. Christology from above begins the process of understanding the person Jesus Christ with statements of authority that name the confessional beliefs of Christians about Jesus Christ; these may be drawn from Scripture or from the classical doctrines about Christ; they are metaphysical in character. …

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