Essay / Theology

19 Books on the Church

The last few years, I’ve been reading and writing on ecclesiology. It’s a funny topic, one capable of being at one moment dull, at the next incendiary. There’s plenty out there that merely re-hashes standard material and parses terms ever more finely. Here, though, are a few of my favorite reads – an idiosyncratic list, to be sure, not any kind of summative list of the greatest ecclesiological texts, but one that might suggest some satisfying reading. The list is in alphabetical order by author.

1. William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal
Abraham surveys a fascinatingly diverse set of programs for renewal in the last half-century, arguing against all of them that the church’s renewal is a matter not of epistemological adjustment but of a return to the means of grace.

2. Karl Barth, Ad Limina Apostolorum: An Appraisal of Vatican II
Barth had been invited to observe Vatican II, but was prevented by illness. After a summer of careful study, he spent a week in Rome talking through a series of clarifying and critical questions. Here we see a sympathetic Protestant who is hopeful, curious, fraternal and, always, incisive.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
Bonhoeffer doggedly sought the visible church in a Nazi Germany that sought to render it invisible – or, to reduce its visibility to that of a sponsor of nationalism. Here, he insists that Jesus’ call to radical discipleship continues in the church today.

4. David Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology and Mission

Bosch does everything in this book, which has justly been called a “Summa Missiologica”.

5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV

Lots of polemic here, but in the midst, some of the richest reflections on the nature of the church in light of Scripture and the work of the Spirit. Ever. Calvin may be the best when it comes to seeing the church in light of pneumatology.

6. William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ

Best ecclesiological title ever. Cavanaugh chronicle’s the effort to disappear the church in Pinochet’s Chile (including the church’s complicity there) with the way in which the eucharist renders the church visible. “Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs.”

7. Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, Expanded Edition

A master of generosity and balance, Dulles looks at five leading models for understanding the church – as institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. This oft-used book is invaluable as a heuristic tool, even if its comparative method is limited in scope.

8. Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology

Better than anyone, Farrow invites the church to take seriously the absence of the risen Lord and its implications for ecclesiology.

9. Darrell L. Guder (ed.), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America

My friend Ron once suggested that the missional church movement is the best thing going among the various strands of conversation in the emerging church. I think he’s right. This collection of essays sets the agenda for the church’s mission in North America, contextualizing the gospel in a region rapidly transitioning from sender to receiver of the gospel.

10. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony

In all their work, but never more programmatically than here, Hauerwas and Willimon challenge Christians to consider that our citizenship is in heaven and its consequences for our life on Earth. The shortness and sharpness of the book might incline some to dismiss it as a prophetic rant. I imagine Israel had good reasons for turning a deaf ear to its prophets, too.

11. Nicholas M. Healy, Church, World and Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology, and ‘Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?‘ International Journal of Systematic Theology 5 (2003): 287-308

Healy has argued for years that ecclesiology must attend to the real, concrete church in its imperfection and sinfulness. Of note are his critique of abstracting “blueprint ecclesiologies” and the caveat he offers to recent emphasis on the practices of the church.

12. Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009)

Hellerman takes Jesus at his word, insisting that the church is an alternate kinship group, one that trumps all other loyalties. Water, as another recent book by Jana Marguerite Bennett has it, is thicker than blood.

13. Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God

It’s hard to pinpoint just why this book is so good, but it is. Lohfink left the academy to join an intentional community originally founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Here, he begins with election (“Why God Needs a Special People”) and considers the character of God’s people in Israel and the church, peppering the discussion with rich exegetical insight.

14. Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament

A wonderful book that patiently, reasonably explores the New Testament’s various images for the church and also the way that metaphors implicate themselves in our lives.

15. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, and The Household of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, and The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed.

The best, newest, freshest things being said about the church and the gospel today were mostly said better, with more nuance and more faithfulness to the gospel by Lesslie Newbigin a quarter century (or more) ago.

16. Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology

O’Donovan’s treatment of Christendom (as a not altogether regrettable set of sociopolitical consequences of Christian mission) has received mixed reviews, but his sense of a theopolitical unity rooted in the kingship of Christ and its implications for the church is unmatched for its exegetical acuity and historical awareness.

17. R. R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity

Reno argues that the church is in ruins and that – despite the temptation to run for the hills – the only faithful place to live is right in the ruins, singing a song of lament. His call is to forsake the comfort of distance for a cruciform intimacy with God’s church in all its imperfection and sin. For people quick to move from church to church, his jeremiad is good, strong medicine.

18. Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, and Of Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism

Schmemann exemplifies the wedding of liturgy and theology and the ancient maxim that the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. Like de Lubac did for Roman Catholicism, Schmemann reminded Eastern Orthodoxy that the sacraments cannot and should not be reduced to a magic moment (say, the transformation of the elements) or isolated from the broader life of the church.

19. John Webster, ‘On Evangelical Ecclesiology’, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II, 153-93

It takes an Anglican to be able to argue so vigorously that ecclesiology needs to go on a diet. At every point, Webster cautions against bloated ecclesiologies that ask the church to be and do what only Christ can be and do.

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