Systematic Theology is the discipline of taking that which Christians believe and teach (or, in any case, that which any given systematic theologian thinks Christians should believe and teach) and organizing that material into a coherent whole, a “system.” Pick up most any Systematic Theology textbook, and the first chapter is likely to be about God, generically speaking, or, perhaps, about the basis for human knowledge of God—religious epistemology, revelation, or the like. From there, the “system” might proceed to the specifically Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and then, perhaps, to the person and work of Christ, or maybe to Christian anthropology—the nature of Man, the Fall, the character of sin, redemption, and grace. The concluding chapter is likely to be on eschatology—Last Things, how the story ends. Somewhere in the middle, and probably closer to the end than to the beginning, there will be a chapter on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church (and, depending on the theological perspective of the author, something on the sacraments).
It all seems reasonable enough. There are a great many puzzle pieces that need to be in place before one can make sense of the Church. This methodology has sometimes been styled “theology from above.” It is a deductive exercise, in that it starts with truths that are over-arching and all-encompassing—i.e. truths about God—and reasons downward to matters that are specific and localized, matters like the Church. But it seems worthwhile to pose the question, What if one were to attempt a systematic theology, as it were, “from below”? What if one were to do theology in a manner that philosophers might call “phenomenological,” beginning with the concrete and specific and reasoning from there to the general and all-encompassing? From such a perspective, Chapter I in a Systematic Theology textbook would probably concern itself with the Church.
If you are a Christian (a plausible presumption for the readership of this blog), how did you first hear about Jesus? Was it at your grandmother’s knee? From a Sunday School teacher? A pastor? A friend or neighbor? A radio or TV ministry? From picking up a Gideon bible in a hotel room? In any of these cases, it was some manifestation of the Church that introduced you to Christ. Unless the risen Jesus appeared to you personally as he did to Saul on the Damascus Road, you have the Church to thank for your Christian faith. So from the standpoint of the actual lives of actual Christians, the Church is not an afterthought, a derivation from some more foundational principles. It is our point of connection to the gospel, the indispensable medium in which and through which we have a relationship with Christ.
(I’m about to make some wide sweeping generalizations, which can cause trouble if they’re stretched beyond their usefulness in making a critical point. I’ll try to do my part in avoiding that trap; you’ll have to do yours as well.)
With apologies to chickens and eggs everywhere: Which came first, the Church or the Believer? I believe there is a correct theological answer to this question, and that such theological priority is rooted in and demonstrated by the phenomenological priority asserted above. It’s kind of hip these days among some believers to describe themselves as “Christ-followers” rather than “Christians.” This reflects a certain frustration with the institutional obtuseness of the Church, but in the end, it’s a bogus distinction, a red herring. Every “Christ-follower” first met Jesus through the ministry of the Church. Even Saul/Paul was commanded to seek out the Church in Damascus in order to be relieved of his blindness and be baptized. Even the apostles did not know Jesus apart from the community of their colleagues. There is no such thing as free-lance Christianity. By being connected to the Head, one is unavoidably connected to the Body. (More about that in subsequent posts in this series.)
What I am attempting to enunciate here is a Catholic ecclesiology, which consistently asserts that the Church is in every way (phenomenologically, theologically, and ontologically) prior to the Believer. This notion swims decidedly upstream against a powerful current of American individualism, with roots going back to colonial times, combined with post-modern intellectual relativism and libertinism—a stream that provides congenial lodging for an essentially Protestant ecclesiology. In Protestant ecclesiology, the Believer is prior to the Church. When an individual encounters Christ, that person immediately looks around for others who have had a similar encounter, and forms community with them for purposes of common worship, mutual support and encouragement, and united witness and mission. In this view, “church” is simply a collective noun for an aggregation of believers. The Believer is prior to the Church—theologically and ontologically, at any rate, if not phenomenologically.
In practice, this gets pretty mixed up. There are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the ecclesiological moorings of which are solidly Catholic (Roman, Anglican, Orthodox) but whose personal mental model of the Church (even though they may not have the technical vocabulary to articulate it as such) is clearly Protestant (especially if they happen to be Americans). And there are doubtless many thousands of Christians who are members of ecclesial bodies the formal ecclesiology of which is squarely in the free-church congregationalist evangelical tradition, but who have intuitively constructed a personal mental model of the Church that is quite communitarian, in fact, quite Catholic.
This theological dissonance is, I suspect, largely subliminal. Most Christians who hold ecclesiological pre-suppositions that are at odds with the ‘DNA’ of their own church are not aware of the disconnect. Yet, if one were to take any given church conflict, and peel back all the underlying rhetoric and substantive argument, that very disconnect would in many cases lie at the bottom of the pile.
I suppose it goes without saying that I am an advocate of the Catholic position, as I have described it. It is not only undeniably true phenomenologically, but if we take seriously the Pauline “body” metaphor, it is manifestly true theologically (more on that to come). Of course, I hold in esteem my fellow-believers from ecclesial traditions that take the opposite point of view. What would perhaps be most helpful all around is if, in our discussions of other matters, we could be more consciously aware of our underlying ecclesiological assumptions. I suppose I would probably also find it helpful if people spoke and acted in ways that are coherent with the formal ecclesiology of the churches of which they are actually members.
Still to come: Part III: The Visibility of the Church, and Part IV: The Unity of the Church.