Essay / Theology

Unperplexed About the Church

There’s a series of books called Guides for the Perplexed, which is a Rambammish series title that promises to help you sort out your confusion. I don’t know how all the other books in the series are, but here’s one that really delivers on the promise: The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Scriptorium’s own Matt Jenson and Baylor theology professor David Wilhite.

Don’t expect an objective review of the book here. Jenson’s a Torrey prof who has been unperplexing us about churchy stuff for years now. I am thrilled to see this work available at last in book form. Regular Scriptorium readers have already had a peek at some of the book’s big ideas, and the extensive reading Jenson has done in preparation for the book. But for an outsider’s perspective, check out the endorsements by Kevin Vanhoozer (“an important theological tonic to those for whom “church” connotes scandal or abuse rather than good news and reconciliation”) and William Cavanaugh (“a model for how generous and critical theological conversation should be conducted”) at the publisher’s blog.

“Guides for the perplexed” are supposed to skip the easy introductory material and explain the especially hard stuff. So they’re not the best books for beginners. They presuppose that you’re already far enough into a subject to be a little confused. Jenson and Wilhite do an exemplary job at this task, attempting “to navigate between breezy generalities on the one hand and arcane specificities on the other” (p. 2). If your questions are “which denomination should I join” or “should we collect an offering in the middle or at the end of the service,” you won’t find immediate help here. Jenson and Wilhite will, however, take you by the hand and lead you up to a place where you can see where your detailed questions fit into the big picture.

This is an exquisitely well-organized book that equips its readers to do their own theological thinking about the church. It informs (by summarizing crucial conversations, providing deft historical reporting, and giving handy bibliographic reports in the endnotes), instructs (by providing helpful categories and identifying some paths in advance as being dead-ends), and provokes (by maintaining a consistently opinionated and critical tone of voice, and by leaning into, rather than away from, some of the most contentious issues).

But in addition to these three accomplishments (informing, instructing, and provoking), Jenson and Wilhite manage to accomplish one further task: They inspire. They do this not so much by argument as by example, writing as youngish scholars who have read widely, ministered in several contexts, know all the dirt, and remain committed to the church as the center of God’s plan for the world. Their commitment is grounded the only way it could be: theologically. The book is framed by three short sections that draw attention to the spiritual realities supporting the church: Christ’s ascension, the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost, and the second coming. These sections are “intended to remind readers of the place of the church in the economy of salvation and to tether ecclesiology to the history of the triune God’s redemptive ways with the world” (p. 3). They succeeded in reminding this reader of the bigger picture that the church fits into, and helped make sense of many of the details of ecclesiology. They turn our eyes upon Jesus, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father (ascension), from which he poured out the Holy Spirit (Pentecost), and from which he shall return to judge the living and the dead (parousia). The story of the church is a big one, but it’s not bigger than the Jesus story. Jesus outflanks the church and makes it what it is.

The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed is not the kind of book that pushes a few big ideas of its own. It is not thesis-driven, but oriented toward surveying and clarifying the current state of the discussion. But for all its fairness and comprehensiveness, it manages to avoid bland summarization. The book’s energy comes mainly from the tone of voice the authors have cultivated, which is a striking amalgamation of their two voices into one continuous authorial presence. The reader is never abandoned to sheer encyclopedic recital of information, because there is always an authorial presence accompanying, and that authorial presence is itself a complex voice with a double helping of ideas and opinions in it. This is one of the most successful and complete collaborations I’ve ever read.

Though they write without a major thesis to prove, the authors do assert some key organizational categories that would be good for every church thinker to adopt. The four major sections of the book are entitled Models, Marks, Mediation, and Mission. All the necessary elements of ecclesiology find their homes somewhere within these categories. The authors are a bit cold toward the “Models” approach, warning that the quest for the right model (or analogy) of the church tends to settle into the rut of a “blueprint ecclesiology” that declares in advance what the church will be.

The “Marks” section is really all about the visibility of the church, asking what signs the church will give that will help us find it today. “A concern for the visibility of the church occupies our search, but it is matched by a growing sense of the only partial and often contested nature of this visibility.” (That sentence just quoted, by the way, is a typically balanced and nuanced bit of Jenson-Wilhite prose. There is probably one of those on every page, juxtaposed with shorter and sharper sentences that these balanced and cautionary sentences help keep under control.)

“Mediation” is a rich section that starts out with the very promising umbrella category of “means of grace,” and then turns to issues of polity and ordination (including women’s ordination in the current ecumenical climate and the long history of the church).

“Mission” is one of the best parts of the book, as Jenson and Wilhite link ecclesiology to the action of God in the world, or the Missio Dei. The authors argue that the church is constituted by this divine action that gives it its reason for being. For those who follow the developments in ecumenical ecclesiology, that means The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed is taking a particular position in aligning itself with the Missio Dei movement rather than the communio ecclesiology movement (though their reporting on the communio theology is some of the clearest I’ve seen).

It would be too much to call this book a major free-church contribution to ecclesiology. It’s too even-handed a project for that, and too concerned (rightly) to canvass all the relevant positions on the major issues. But it strikes me as a significant fact that two free-church theologians have authored the best survey of ecumenical ecclesiology at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They make an important contribution to the conversation, not just by asserting their own presence as free-church thinkers, but also by representing the vast multitudes of Christians (especially in the developing world) who are not aligned with the episcopal and magisterial churches, those “usual suspects” in ecumenical conversations. Ecumenical achievements like the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry report (Lima, 1982) had almost nothing to say to the free churches, independent churches, and global Pentecostal churches. The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed will probably have its greatest lasting significance as a project that is much closer to the concerns of those ignored multitudes, while being as theologically literate and ecumenically informed as it is possible for anyone to be.

Order a copy of Jenson and Wilhite’s The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed. It probably shouldn’t be your first or only book on ecclesiology, but it is one that you should read early on in the study of the subject, to make sure you get unperplexed about the full range of complex issues.

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