Over thirty years have passed since the “Models of the Church” by Avery Dulles was first published and yet this book is still capable of speaking to contemporary theologians about the Church, her nature and her ultimate meanings.
Dulles presents an informed account of various ecclesiologies by examining the narratives of Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed theologians against the ever-present backdrop post-Vatican II theology. Dulles aims to provide a ‘balanced theology of the Church’ [Avery Dulles, (1976) 7] and some of the necessary comparative tools needed in ecumenism and the ecclesiological dialogue between Churches. In so doing, the author introduces five models which represent five different – often conflicting – ecclesiologies. These models are:
(a) the Church as Institution
(b) the Church as Mystical Communion
(c) the Church as Sacrament
(d)the Church as Herald (of the Kingdom)
(e) the Church as Servant
Each of these models represents a particular “genre” of interpretation; moreover each of the models could be broken down in subgroups in order to focus on particular theological aspects. However, Dulles suggests that even considering the depths of theological insights contained into each model, it would be impossible for ecclesiologists to provide a balanced account of Church by working on one model alone. Indeed, he reminds the reader several times that a truthful account of Church can only flow from a dialogue between all the models [cf. ibid. 8]. Thus, on the one hand, Dulles seems to hint at the dangers of a traditional text-book ecclesiology which might become entrenched in specific world and church-views; certainly this danger becomes apparent when the Church is regarded merely as an institution – model (a).
On the other hand, the reader may be confused by the rejection of definitive ecclesiologies and the necessity of dialogue between models. There are many basic questions which could be asked about the Church for which each model could potentially provide a different answer; not only “What is the Church?” but more simply “What is her purpose?” or rather more prosaically “Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’?” The Catechism of the Catholic Church would be able to answer these questions in a straightforward manner, but the theological dialogue proposed by Dulles would not [Dulles relies on the work of other theologians who seems to express similar view-points. Amongst them is Gerald O’Collins who, later on in his career, speculated about the real possibility of redemption outside the Church or Christianity; e.g. Salvation for All: God’s Other People (OUP, 2008)]. Nevertheless, this is where Dulles introduces his idea of the Church as a mystery [cf. Avery Dulles, (1976) 7].
The Church, because of her transcendent nature, has to be regarded as a mystery by the faithful. Indeed, in sociological terms her life could be assessed with a great degree of certainty, but from a theological standpoint the Church is so intimately connected to the divine life of the Trinity as to participate in the mystery of the Godhead. Thus, because one cannot talk directly about a mystery, it becomes necessary to employ models or symbols; these can only offer to the theologian a representation of the mystery but they cannot grasp its transcendent reality as a whole.
The limited use of symbols
Dulles affirms that many models of Church can be employed by theologians; he uses five basic ones, but many more could be explored. This is fine insofar as the models are able to catch trans-denominational ecclesiological elements; i.e. the symbols need to encompass theological and “behavioural” characteristics which are found more than one denomination. If an element of commonality is not expressed in the models the whole argument risks to become comparative-ecclesiology under another name. In Dulles’s words it becomes ‘too dichotomous’ [ibid. 7]. To interpret the life of the Church using models is more than just comparing one denomination against another; e.g. the Orthodox Church vs. the Anglican.
Dulles’ use of models is, in some respects lacking this criterion even though it seems the driving force behind his book. Indeed, he does not compare denominations in a direct way, but nonetheless, he seems to tailor each model on the behavioural patterns expressed by individual denominations. Thus, the Institutional model (a) becomes the paradigm of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism; whilst the Sacramental model (c) becomes the abridged version of post-Conciliar ecclesiology; and the Church as a Herald (d) becomes the paradigm of certain Reformed churches. On this basis of these considerations, the only two models which truly reflect some general notions about the Church are (b) and (e).
The Church as a Mystical Communion or the People of God
Dulles proposes this model as the “cure” against Institutionalism. He envisages that the concept of a Mystical Body, united with a moderate Institutionalism could bring forth a balanced understanding of Church [cf. ibid. 42]. Having said this, the author seems at times more concerned about paring the pre-Vatican II notions of the Church as the perfect society with the later theological narratives about the Church as a communion which encompasses all believers, denominational practices notwithstanding.
Dulles draws upon the theologians such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Pius XII in order to bring forth a model of Church in which the Holy Spirit and the ‘reconciling grace of Christ’ [ibid. 53] are responsible for binding together all believers together as the People of God [cf. ibid. 52]. However, it is not entirely clear whether or not for Dulles this concept is necessarily coterminous with the idea of Church as the Body of Christ.
At prima facie the two concepts appears to be coextensive [cf. ibid. 49] as both include the totality of all believers [Similar ideas have been expressed by Anglican theologians since the Seventeenth Century; e.g. Richard Hooker describes the whole Church with this comparison: ‘as the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts hath divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct Societies, every of which is termed a Church within itself.’ (Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 3.i.14)]. Dulles envisages the Mystic Communion as the vehicle of salvation for all believers and the base upon which primary relationships among Christians can be founded in the sharing of common virtues [e.g. Charity]. Thus the mutual relationships between God and His people and between the believers are then equitable to the bonds envisaged by the Body of Christ in Pauline literature. However, later in the chapter, Dulles goes further in his reflection and affirms that the Church is not merely ‘a vehicle to bring men to heaven’ but that the Church exists also ‘for [her] own sake’ [Avery Dulles (1976) 54]. Therefore, the Church is in need of a structure, a particularity which can be easily implemented from the Institutional model and the Body of Christ metaphor. Form this idea to considering the Roman Catholic Church as the only Body, is a small step and Dulles seems inclined to make it by the end of the chapter.
The Church as Servant
The Servant image is perhaps the one which has had more influence in the last few decades than the other models. Certainly Bonhoeffer’s seminal statement on the Church [‘The Church is the Church only when it exits for others’ ibid. 88] summarises the feelings of many writers across the spectrum of Christianity [For a recent Anglican interpretation see The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin, SPCK (London, 2002).] from European Reformed churches to Latin American Liberation Theologies.
Dulles’ narrative in this chapter is framed by two – seemingly opposing – statements form Pius XII and John XXIII. Both of these statements are truth for our times, although pronounced in the first half of the Twentieth Century; both bear the marks of an attitude towards the world which has polarised the Church. On the one hand the advance of progress and civil rights has been often accompanied by some of the most hideous crimes against human nature [cf. Avery Dulles (1976) 84] and the Church remains as a Cybil to prophesy the impending doom. On the other hand, Christ compels the Church to proclaim His victory of the world even when hope seems to fade [cf. ibid. 85]. Thus in the theology behind this two statements, we see the Church’s struggle to understand both her prophetic and sacramental roles; her being a watchman but also the graceful presence of God amidst His creation. In doing so, the Church becomes a servant of the whole human family; she becomes the corporate embodiment of the Good Samaritan and she is able to stay alongside men, warning them of the dangers ahead and healing them with the ‘reconciling grace of Christ’. Being a servant is thus not just about being relevant for the wider human family particularly at times of need; it is also to being involved in the daily transformation, redemption and transfiguration of humanity.
In terms of ministry, Dulles affirms that the role of the priest is manifold and ‘it would include building the Christian community, presiding at worship, the proclamation of the Word of God and activity for the transformation of secular society’ [ibid. 165]. All these aspects should be balanced together to bring forth a pattern of priesthood which matches ever more closely the Priesthood of Christ. Similarly, the dialogue between ecclesiological models should further the Church’s understanding of her own mystery.
Models of the ChurchAvery Dulles book is a prophetic work. The author is able to draw on the many sources in order to portray five different – yet overlapping – images of Church. Some of these models seem tailored around certain denominations and they could remind the reader more of comparative ecclesiology rather than a fresh outlook to the Church’s life. Nevertheless, the points raised by Dulles are incredibly important for understating the current situation of Christianity and for tracing the way ahead. His ecclesiology is founded on the constant presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and this makes it readily available to most – if not all – Christian denominations. According to Dulles, the faithful have the responsibility to listen to ‘what the Spirit is saying to the Churches’ (Rev. 2:17) [cf. ibid. 191] in order to conform the Church’s mission to the Gospel.