Options on 'church'
Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member; Professor, South Dakota State University)
November 7, 2005
Options for Thinking about ‘Church’
“What is the Being of the Church?”
What’s at Stake?
- The adoption of Called to Common Mission in 1999 stimulated Lutheran
interest in ecclesiological matters
- The opposition to CCM birthed the WordAlone Network
- There has been much subsequent opposition to this WordAlone opposition
- What “deeper picture” generates each of these oppositions?
- At question is the nature of Church
Called to Common Mission
- The Full Communion agreement with the Episcopal Church USA adopted by the
ELCA in August of 1999
- This agreement was the result of over two decades of ecumenical discussions
- CCM committed the ELCA to the practice of the historic episcopate
- CCM seeks to establish a fully interchangeable clergy
Symptoms of Different Understandings of ‘Church’ between
Lutherans and Episcopalians
- Clergy and Bishops seem to have a ‘higher status’ in the ECUSA (and
Anglicanism generally) than in the ELCA (and Lutheranism generally)
- Proper churchly “order” seems more important for Episcopalians
- Proper liturgies also seem more important for Episcopalians
- “Unity” definitely more important for Episcopalians than for Lutherans
- It seems that Episcopalians are more interested in “church” than Lutherans
The Tradition on ‘Church’
- The Development of the church in the early tradition: towards an apostolic
- Cyprian and the development of the papacy
- Augustine’s two notions of ‘church’: The visible church and the invisible
collection of the elect
- The Reformation Critique: The priesthood of believers needs no means of
grace outside of Christ. Word and Sacrament are linked directly to Christ. The
church does not exist as “thing” dispensing grace, but is rather is the
congregation of those called around Christ’s dispensation of grace.
- The Church is not the mother, but the daughter of the Word.
Basic Questions about Church
- How is the notion of ‘church’ related to the collection of “true” believers?
- How is the notion of ‘church’ related to the notion of the Body of Christ?
- How is the notion of ‘church’ related to earthly institutions like the Roman
Catholic Church, the Methodist church, the Presbyterian Church, and the ELCA?
The “Deeper Picture”
- What is the deeper ontological picture underlying the WordAlone critique and
opposition to WordAlone critique?
- What is it precisely that is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?” To what
do the Nicene predicates really apply?
- How “divine” is the Church? In what sense can one say that Christ is in the
Church, or that Christ’s Body is the Church?
The Church Visible and Hidden
- The Lutheran Critique articulated the Notion of the Hidden Church as “those
with faith and Holy Spirit in the heart” (Apology, VII/VIII)
- The marks of the presence of that church are the gathering of people around
Word and Sacrament: For Lutherans there is but one church, hidden then revealed.
- Within Lutheran orthodoxy, the four ecclesiological predicates apply
properly only to the Hidden Church: all of the faithful are by definition ‘one’,
are by Christ’s justificatory act ‘holy’, are by definition ‘catholic’, and are
by their faith ‘apostolic’. They apply improperly and by synecdoche to the
visible church, because it contains unbelievers.
The Body of Christ and the Institutional Organization
- One ontological option is to identify, strictly or loosely, the Church with
the Body of Christ
- Another ontological option claims that one is an attribute of the other,
e.g. the Body of Christ is a property of the Church, or vice-versa
- A third option identifies, strictly or loosely, the Church with its earthly,
- Another option claims that one is an attribute of the other, e.g., Having a
particular institutional structure is a property of church, or vice-versa
Digging into the Ontology of Church: A Basic Distinction
- Particulars are the basic objects or events of
reality that bear properties or can be grouped into classes; When concrete (in
space and time) they can exist in only one place at one time, when abstract they
exist outside space and time altogether, e.g., numbers, sets, God, etc.
- Universals — if they exist — are instantiated by
particulars; they are either properties or relations, and they are wholly
instantiated by more than one particular (whiteness is instantiated by all white
Ontological Options for Understanding the Visible Church
- Option I: To be the church visible is to be a member of the set of all
individual churches (congregations).
- Option II: To be the church visible is to resemble particular churches
- Option III: The church is something more than individual churches. It is a
universal that can be multiply-instantiated in particular churches.
- Option IV: The visible church is the set of all particular “churchly”
properties had by any ecclesiological entity.
- Option V: The visible church is the whole of which all the institutional
entities are parts. The church is a visible particular, that is either identical
with, or constituted by, its visible parts.
Option I: The Visible Church is the Set of Individual Churches
- Ecclesiological Class Nominalism
- To be the church visible is to be a member of the set of all individual
churches (congregations). Just as having the property of white is just to be a
member of the class of white things, having the property of church is just to be
a member of the class of churches. Only particular churches (or congregating
- Class membership is a primitive notion
- Strong congregationalist orientation
- ‘One’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic’ properly apply only to individual
Option II: The Visible Church is the Set of Resembling Churches
- Ecclesiological Resemblance Nominalism
- Just as having the property of white is a resemblance among white things,
having the property of church is a resemblance among particular churches (or
congregating events). Only particular churches (or congregating events) exist.
- Resemblance is a primitive notion
- Strong congregationalist orientation
- ‘One’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic’ refers only to these various
Option III: The Church as a Universal
- Ecclesiological Realism
- Strong Realism: The universal called ‘church’ exists apart from its
instantiations in particular churches or congregating events
- Moderate Realism: The universal called ‘church’ exists only in and through
its instantiations in particular congregations and institutions; there is no
church apart from instantiation in particular churches, but being church is not
reducible to being a collection of particular churches
- Particular churches (or congregating events) are “layered”; they are
structured so as to possess the property church
- ‘One’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic’ refer to the universal church
transcending particular churches (or congregating events)
Option IV: The Visible Church is the Set of “Churchly”
Properties Exhibited by Particular Churches
- Tropes are abstract particulars; they are properties possessed by entities
- Ecclesiological Trope Class or Ecclesiological Trope Resemblance Nominalism
- Just as being white is the class of all particular occasions of the property
whiteness, the being of church is the set of all particular occasions of the
- What is common throughout the visible church is not churches or congregating
events, but properties had by these churches or agencies
- Weakly congregationalist in orientation
- ‘One’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’, and ‘apostolic’ are higher-order properties of
the “churchly” properties; just as color is a second-order property of the
first-order property red, so is ‘holy’ a second-order property of the property
Option V: The Visible Church as the Whole of its Parts
- On this view, the Church is not a property, but is rather a particular.
- The Church is a whole consisting of its parts (mereological construal). On
this view, any change of the parts changes what the church is
- Just as the United States consists of all 50 states (and not just some of
them), and just as no particular state is the United States, so too the Church
consists of all its churches and ecclesial agencies (and not just some of them),
although no particular church or agency is the Church
- ‘One’, ‘holy’, ‘catholic’, and ‘apostolic’ pertain to the whole church and
cannot apply to any part
- But what is the relation between the whole and its parts?
Reduction, Emergence and Supervenience
- Is the particular entity church, the whole ‘one, holy, catholic and
apostolic church’, reducible to a collection or a particular configuration of
churches or agencies?
- Does this particular ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ emerge from
these individual churches and agencies? Is it something new, some new entity
with novel properties beyond those of its parts?
- Is the particular whole church supervenient (dependent, but not reducible)
to the individual churches and agencies comprising it?
Ontological Implications of Taking the Hidden Church Seriously
- If the true Church is hidden, then ‘church’ applies properly only to the set
of all with faith and Holy Spirit (those justified by Christ through faith), and
only improperly to a visible entity
- The Church becomes the set of all the justified (class nominalism), or the
set of all resembling each other with respect to the presence of faith and the
Holy Spirit (resemblance nominalism), or the set of the properties held by
individuals of faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit (trope nominalism)
The Deflationary Ecclesiology of the Hidden Church
- If the Church is a set of individuals, and if this set is revealed around
Word and Sacrament, then can one speak in any way about the visible Church
having “Being” insofar as it is Church?
- The visible Church qua visible Church may have an ontology, but it is of a
different order than the hidden (true) church; it is, strictly speaking, not an
ontology of church - - at least if we regard the true church as hidden.
- A deflationary ecclesiology of the hidden church understands church as a
collection of justified individuals in relation to Christ
The Relationship between the Hidden Church, the Visible Church,
and the Presencing of the Divine
- The hidden Church is exhibited in the activities of the visible Church as
people gather around Word and Sacramen.t
- Only individuals within the hidden Church have divine presence as
- Gatherings around Word and Sacrament have the participation of individuals
with faith, but such gatherings qua gatherings (congregations) do not present
the divine outside individual faith or the “real presence” in the Word and
The Ontology of Relating Church to the Body of Christ
- Option I: One can simply identify the Church with the Body of Christ and
claim that the two have the same extension (apply to the same things) although
they have different intensions (the properties of the Body of Christ are
different from that of church)
- Option II: One can claim an extensional difference between the church and
the Body of Christ despite a metaphorical identification. (For example, one
might claim that the Church is made of some not within the Body of Christ.)
- Option III: One can argue that the Body of Christ is paradoxically present
within the Church: It is not identical to Church, but not wholly different from
the Church, that is, “really present” within the Church
The Ontology of Relating the Visible Church and the
- Option I: One can simply identify the visible Church with the institutional
- One can claim an extensional equivalence despite an intensional difference
- Option II: One can claim that the institutional organization metaphorically
is the visible Church
- Option III: One can claim that the visible church supervenes upon its
institutional organization, that the former is dependent, but not reducible to
- It is crucially important what is meant by ‘church’
- There are various ways we might understand the being of church, and the
relationship between the hidden and manifest church, the visible church, the
Body of Christ, and its institutional structure.
- Lutheran ecclesiology has traditionally been not much interested in
questions about the ontology of church, yet the ELCA present ecumenical
trajectory takes it right into the midst of these questions.
The Important Questions
- Can the ELCA be called ‘church’, or is it a collection of congregations? Is
the ELCA a church of congregations, or a congregation of churches?
- If the ELCA is a church, can we say that this church has “expressions”? Is
the church instantiatable in its expressions?
- How can the ELCA be part of the western “church”?
- What are the properties by virtue of which the ELCA is the ELCA? Is it
finally merely an institutional organization in which church might appear?
- Of what does the Historic Episcopate sign unity?