Tag Archives: ecclesiology

Book | Testing the Spirits edited by Patrick Keifert

9780802807403Keifert, Patrick R. Testing the Spirits: How Theology Informs the Study of Congregations. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009.

The Authors

Ronald W. Duty

Pat Taylor Ellison

David Fredrickson

Donald Juel

Patrick Keifert

Lois Malcolm

Gary Simpson

Testing the Spirits P196

Three Shifts (from Van Gelder’s Foreword)

  1. The return of the congregation to theological education.
  2. The role of the Bible in the life of congregations.
  3. The role of congregations living in their particular contexts as public moral companions

Congregational Studies Research Team (CRST) Mission Statement

“We are a theological learning organization in direct partnership with congregations, church leaders, and teachers. In concert with the Spirit of God, this partnership seeks to build up and empower congregations for mission by engaging with them in a process of conversation and action involving spiritual discernment and theological reflection about the necessary behaviors, skills, beliefs, and knowledge base for faithfully and effectively bringing people to a public identity in Christ.”⁠1

Simpson on the Trinity

“The Trinitarian life of the crucified God forms the basis for the communicative mode of God’s own creative agency. So also, it forms our vocational participation in this mode of creative moral agency. We are now coming full circle. Christian vocation is freedom from our sinful instrumentalization of the created world that is effected by the trustworthiness of the alien righteousness of the Crucified and received by faith. In the vocational freedom, the entire created world remains the media and ‘masks’ (larvae dei) of the triune God’s creative agency. Furthermore, Christian vocation is freedom for our ‘proper righteousness’ which always retains its ‘basis,’ ‘cause,’ and ‘source’ in Christ’s alien righteousness. In this vocational freedom we remain cooperators with God’s creative agency (cooperatio dei) to bring temporal life into existence, to nurture that life, and to extend that life to all others.”⁠2

Lois Malcolm’s Summary Statement

“In summary, throughout these discussions of congregations we have been arguing that God can only be understood indirectly. God is always both hidden and revealed in the church’s proclamation (cf. Barth); God’s mystery and incomprehensibility remain even as we come to know and love God more deeply (cf. Rahner). Nonetheless, as Christians we affirm that God has revealed who God is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. By the power of the Spirit, we have been called and sent to tangibly attend, assert, decide, and act on this within the totality of our lives. But that means that we must risk thinking and speaking about God, and thus we risk the sins of either idolatry or profanation.

Within Protestantism, the main fear has been of the danger of idolatry. If anything, modern culture has sought to base its public life on what is universal, objective, and abstract, and not on what is sectarian. Indeed, one could argue that the Enlightenment critique of particular religions could be seen as a secularized version of this Protestant critique. The Congregational Study Research Team has presupposed that the finite is capable of bearing the infinite: this means that the worldly and mundane can indeed embody God’s presence. What I have argued for here is an appropriate balance of this polarity. Of course, in addition to the danger of idolatry, there is also the danger of profanation. Therefore, what I have offered by way of a comparison of Barth and Rahner is an analysis of precisely this dialectic and how it might function in the discerning of God’s presence in actual practices.”⁠3



1 {Keifert, 2009 #395@4}

2 {Keifert, 2009 #395@86}

3 {Keifert, 2009 #395@199}

Book | The Witness of God by John G. Flett

The-Witness-of-God-Flett-JohnFlett, John G. The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010.

The Author

FlettJohn Flett is from New Zealand. This book is his PhD Dissertation from Princeton.

An abstract of the Article version of this book:

The key flaw of missio Dei is its deficient trinitarianism. Despite the supposed range of positions associated with the concept, they all stem from this same base. The problem is one of dividing who God is in himself from who he is in his economy. While mission is often understood as bridging the divide between God and the world, the trinitarian problem of missio Dei is actually a problem of God himself. God exists in the world as Father, Son, and Spirit, and in this way, he can both be, and be in such a way that he comes into the world. Any community that lives in doxological correspondence  to this missionary God is, of necessity, a missionary community. (Missio Dei: Envisioning an Apostolic Reading of ScriptureMissiology: An International Review January 1, 2009 37: 19-32)

From a review by Deanna Ferree Womack (March 14, 2011)

The Witness of God aims to transform doctrinal theology, missiology, and the life of the church through the subversion of prevailing theological dichotomies. John Flett – habilitant at the Kirchliche Hochschule Wuppertal/Bethel, Germany – defines the cleavage between church and mission as “a problem of God,” which derives from a perceived breach between God’s being and act (4). His book discloses the insufficient Trinitarian content of missio Dei theologies and draws from Karl Barth to produce a constructive redefinition of missio Dei. This work is predicated on the argument that the English translation of Die Kirchliche Dogmatik fails to convey “Karl Barth’s thick theological description of mission” (ix). Attention to the nuances of language leads Flett to retranslate English clauses that omit or blur Barth’s original emphasis on the missionary nature of the Christian community. This illumination of Barth’s missionary thinking, widely under-recognized by Barth scholars and missiologists, is but one of Flett’s valuable contributions in this volume.

The final chapter clarifies the redefinition of missio Dei formulated in previous chapters. This rearticulation is necessary, considering the depth of the book’s theological argument and its breadth of historical and theological resources. According to Flett, the missionary act belongs to the triune God’s reconciliation of the world, and it flows from the Christian community’s fellowship with the living God whose action for the world is not ancillary to this being. “The Father’s begetting the Son is a deliberate act…[that] belongs to God’s life from and to all eternity…The resurrection reveals the Son of man to be the Son of God from all eternity” (288). The Spirit subjectively actualizes humanity’s reconciliation, impelling the church to follow Christ into the world. This active service is not constrained by particular historical or cultural patterns, but the church may freely develop missionary forms through engagement in the world and within the bounds of the divine-human relationship. The book’s concluding word, while brief, signals that instead of appealing to human selfishness and fear, the missionary act is sustained by joy.

Flett’s guiding principle that mission opposes propaganda carries great transformative power. This negates any anthropological or ecclesial focus preventing the church from pointing beyond herself. Noting the connections between propaganda, imperialism, and colonialism, Flett advocates a new form of mission that should shatter Western conceptions of mission as evangelistic or justice-oriented work in foreign contexts. Mission is the essential nature of the Christian community in all places, and this active movement into the world takes an anti-imperialist form. The book thus opens new avenues for reflection on mission as a force for reconciliation in post-colonial societies. Despite Flett’s largely European and North American bibliography, his missio Dei theology might be a means for transcending the perceived East-West divide in global Christianity. Engagement with Asian, African, and Hispanic/Latino(a) views of missio Dei is critical, and such work would both enhance and challenge Flett’s argument.

“For if God is by nature missionary, then the proper worship of this God must assume a corresponding missionary form. Christian witness is not some overflow of an otherwise intact fellowship. It is a life given for the sake of the world.”

Book | After Our Likeness by Miroslav Volf

215329Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity Sacra Doctrina. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998.

The Author


Professor Volf is the founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His books include Allah: A Christian Response (2011); Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2006), which was the Archbishop of Canterbury Lenten book for 2006; Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996), a winner of the 2002 Grawemeyer Award; and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (1998), winner of the Christianity Today book award. A member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia, Professor Volf has been involved in international ecumenical dialogues (for instance, with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and interfaith dialogues (on the executive board of C-1 World Dialogue), and is active participant in the Global Agenda Council on Values of the World Economic Forum. A native of Croatia, he regularly teaches and lectures in Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and across North America. Professor Volf is a fellow of Berkeley College.[1]


Volf states the purpose of his book:

“The following study is concerned with placing this cry of protest of the Free Churches—‘We are the church’—into a trinitarian framework and with elevating it to the status of an ecclesiological program, and with doing so in dialogue with Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiologies. I am hopeful that this will also indirectly provide a modest theological contribution to clarifying the problem the political protest ‘We are the people!’ presents to social philosophy. My primary objective, however, is to contribute to the rediscovery of the church.”[2]

“The ecclesiological dispute concerning the church as community is therefore simultaneously a missiological dispute concerning the correct way in which the communal form of Christian faith today is to be live authentically and transmitted effectively.”[3]

He pursues this endeavor by first analyzing the ecclesiologies of Ratzinger—representing the Roman Catholic perspective—and Zizioulas—representing the Greek Orthodox perspectives. He finds both perspectives to be hierarchical, placing God the Father at the supreme head, constituting all else, thus setting the precedent for a hierchical, episcopocentric ecclesial structure. Volf employs Moltmann’s and Pannenberg’s trinitarian doctrine and eschatological futurity of God to reframe the conversation and make a claim for a Free Church, congregational ecclesiology.

This is a sketch from a class discussion in The Congregation, taught by Patrick Keifert at Luther Seminary in the Spring of 2013.

Photo May 15, 7 16 33 AM


On the Church

“The ecclesiality of the church can be defined as follows. Every congregation that assembles around the one Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in order to profess faith in him publicly in pluriform fashion, including through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and which is open to all churches of God and to all human beings, is a church in the full sense of the word, since Christ promised to be present in it through his Spirit as the first fruits of the gathering of the whole people of God in the eschatological reign of God. Such a congregation is a holy, catholic, and apostolic church. One may rightly expect such a congregation to grow in unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity, but one may not deny to it these characterizing features of the church, since it possesses these on the basis of the constitutive presence of Christ.”[4]

On Personhood

“My premise is that the person is constituted by God through its multiple relationships to its human and natural surrounding, and that God gives to the person in this act of constitution the capacity for freedom with regard bot to God and to its environment.”[5]

On Trinitarian Relationships

“In their mutual giving and receiving, the trinitarian persons are not only interdependent, but also mutually internal…Perichoresis refers to the reciprocal interiority of the trinitarian persons…From the interiority of the divine persons, there emerges what I would like to all their catholicity…The notion of perichoresis offers the possibility of overcoming the alternatives unio personaeunitas substantiae. The unity of the triune God is grounded neither in the numerically identical substance nor in the accidental intentions of the persons, but rather in their mutually interior being…The unity of the divine essence is the obverse of the interiority and catholicity of the divine persons.”[6]


“At the ecclesial level…only the interiority of personal characteristics can correspond to the interiority of the divine persons…This is the process of the mutual internalization of personal characteristics occurring in the church through the Holy Spirit indwelling Christians. The Spirit opens them to one another and allows them to become catholic persons in their uniqueness. It is here that they, in a creaturely way, correspond to the catholicity of the divine persons. This catholicity of Christians, however, cannot be limited ecclesially. That is, a catholic person involves the internalization not only of that person’s Christian siblings and friends, but also of the person’s entire ‘environment’—of the Creator as well as of every creature. Every person is a catholic person insofar as that person reflects in himself or herself in a unique way the entire, complex reality in which the person lives.”[7]

Unity of the Church

“Because the Son indwells human beings through the Spirit, however, the unity of the church is grounded in the interiority of the Spirt—ans with the Spirit also in the interiority of the other divine persons—in Christans. The Holy is the ‘one person in many persons.’”[8]

The Church

“The eschatological catholicity of the people of God can be understood properly only within the framework of this eschatological totality of God’s new creation. The catholicity of the entire people of God is the ecclesial dimension of the eschatological fullness of salvation for the entirety of created reality.”[9]


“This twofold activity of the Spirit in unifying and differentiating prevents false catholicity of either church or persons from emerging in which the particular is swallowed up by the universal. The Spirit of communion opens up every person to others, so that every person can reflect something of the eschatological communion of the entire people of God with the triune God in a unique way through the relations in which that person lives.”[10]

[1] http://divinity.yale.edu/volf (accessed September 2, 2013)

[2] {Volf, 1998 #344@11}

[3] {Volf, 1998 #344@11}

[4] {Volf, 1998 #344@158}

[5] {Volf, 1998 #344@186}

[6] {Volf, 1998 #344@208-210}

[7] {Volf, 1998 #344@211-212}

[8] {Volf, 1998 #344@213}

[9] {Volf, 1998 #344@267}

[10] {Volf, 1998 #344@282}