Conflict in relationships is often rooted in inappropriate or unmet expectations. This commonplace wisdom regarding everyday relationships is no less true of one’s relationship to the church. Our conduct and feelings toward the church are governed largely by our expectations of what the church should be. These expectations, furthermore, are rooted in our understanding of the church’s nature. Ministers who weekly find themselves disappointed with the failings of their congregations would do well to attend to their understanding of what the church is. Laypeople who find themselves regularly frustrated with their community’s shortcomings are advised to do likewise. Disappointment (among other negative feelings) often flows from unrealistic expectations, which sometimes betray an unbalanced view of the church. Therefore, a healthy understanding of the nature of the church is of utmost practical import. Is the church the kingdom? If not, what is it? In what ways, if at all, is the church (and actual churches) a sign of the new Jerusalem? How can we theologically describe this imperfect reality we call the “church”? Colin Gunton provides one helpful response.
Among Gunton’s contributions to contemporary theological discourse is his call to reconceive Christian doctrines in light of the all-important reality of the Trinity. The most notable of his trinitarian reformulations are those pertaining to the doctrine of creation and the divine attributes.1 Due to his untimely death, a more systematic outworking of his trinitarian theology vis-à-vis other loci never came to fruition. Since Gunton did not produce an at-length systematic treatment of ecclesiology, this essay aims to outline his articulation of a trinitarian ecclesiology by drawing from his various occasional pieces.
Definitions and descriptions of the church no doubt abound. Nevertheless, I argue that, despite some missteps, Gunton’s relentless attempt to root the nature and calling of the church in the being and action of the triune God opens up a way for a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common, while offering a potentially more fruitful starting point for ecumenical dialogue regarding the nature of the church. First, we examine three related areas that contribute to a fuller understanding of the trinitarian heart of his ecclesiology: (1) the ontology of the church, (2) the place of pneumatology, and (3) the role of a proper Christology.2 Then we provide a constructive appraisal. The hope here is that Gunton’s contribution might help free pastors, teachers, and congregants to live and serve in the church with a love and compassion rooted in realistic expectations of what the church is and will be.
1. In Search of an Ontology
In Gunton’s clearest and most explicit treatment of the church from the perspective of ontology, he argues that the inadequacy of theologies of the church derives from the fact that most are not seriously and consistently rooted in the triune being of God.3 Unlike the patristic attempts to clarify the church’s understanding of God’s triunity and the two natures of Christ that resulted in a distinctive Christian ontology, no such attempts were made in ecclesiology. Instead, theologians conformed their ecclesiologies to models found in the world around them. In the East, where neoplatonism was influential, the urge to think in terms of hierarchy proved most compelling. The ecclesiologies of the West similarly adopted alien conceptualities, the chief of which derives from Augustine, of whom Gunton writes, “A conception of the church as the community of believers is undoubtedly important for him, but it is overlaid by developments deriving from the church’s change of status after Constantine.”4 At that time, the church no longer consisted solely of believers, but appeared to be a mixed conglomeration of saved and lost, which led to two developments. First, since the church was no longer constituted by the faithful, there emerged a greater stress on the institutional nature of the ecclesia built around its hierarchical head. Second, there developed a platonizing distinction between the visible and invisible church, where the latter was envisaged as the true church, the elect, known only to God.5 East and West, failing to extend the insights of the doctrine of the Trinity to the ontology of the church, thus filled the vacuum by setting up rival ontologies along the lines of a neoplatonic graded hierarchy (East) and/or authoritarian legal-political structures (West).6
1.1. A Cappadocian and Puritan Contribution
For Gunton, the doctrine of the Trinity, as it appears in the Cappadocian Fathers, provides a more satisfactory ontology upon which to build a doctrine of the church sufficient to the needs of today. The Cappadocians assert that the being of God consists in free personal communion. Following John Zizioulas, Gunton writes, “The nature of God is communion.”7 Indeed, communion is an ontological category. The being of God, he adds, is “a community of energies, of perichoretic interaction.”8 The threefold koin?nia that is God is not a static hierarchy, but a dynamic community. The point for the church is that it reflects the being of God by displaying koin?nia. The church, Gunton notes, is to be a “finite echo or bodying forth of the divine personal dynamics.”9
In order to flesh out this insight, he contrasts the trinitarian understandings of Augustine and the Cappadocians. The former is modalist in direction and tends to conceive of the persons of the Godhead as posterior to an underlying being of which they are “outcrops,” so to speak. What Augustine neglected was the Cappadocian contribution, which stated that there is no being anterior to the persons. The being of God, in contrast, is the persons in relation to one another.10 These different construals of the Trinity result in correspondingly different ecclesiologies. Augustine’s doctrine of the church views the being of the church as ontologically prior to the “concrete historical relationships of the visible community.” The real being of the church, in this scheme, underlies the relations of persons rather than being a function of them.11 Gunton elsewhere describes this difference as basic to that between an institution and a community. The former exists independently and is logically prior to the persons who become part of it; the persons who join it are at best secondary if not irrelevant to it. By contrast, the latter, the community, is “constituted by its members by virtue of their free relatedness to each other.”12 The main point is that the actual relations of concrete historical persons constitutes the primary being of the church in the way that the hypostases-in-relation constitute the being of God.13
Gunton finds support for his view from the puritan John Owen, whom he deems to be the first to develop an ontology of the church-as-community.14 Owen writes,
(1) The material cause of this church, or the matter whereof it is composed, which are visible believers. (2) The formal cause of it, which is their voluntary coalescency into such a society or congregation, according to the mind of Christ. (3) The end of it is presential local communion, in all the ordinances and institutions of Christ . . . . 15
And elsewhere he notes: “By the matter of the church, we understand the persons whereof the church doth consist, with their qualifications; by its form, the reason, cause, and way of that kind of relation among them which gives them the being of a church.”16 Actual believers in free voluntary relationships with one another is what constitutes the church of Christ. The community is the church. Owen’s shift, furthermore, from Aristotelian terminology (i.e., material and formal cause) in his earlier work to traditional trinitarian vocabulary (i.e., persons, relation) in his latter work signals, for Gunton, an ecclesiology shaped and understood in light of a doctrine of the triune God. Owen’s great achievement, then, is his contribution to understanding that the church is to reflect on its own level the kind of being God is eternally—as a communion, a being-in-relation.17 The weakness in Owen, however, is that his conception of the church as a voluntary community may collapse into a secular and individualistic understanding of freedom unless controlled pneumatologically.18 The Cappadocians, according to Gunton, provide the necessary safeguard by presenting the Holy Spirit as the “perfecting cause” who sovereignly frees persons to be for God and for others in Christian community and thus to become what they are meant to be. In short, it is the Spirit who calls the community into being.19
1.2. Open Transcendentals and the Nature of the Church
A description of Gunton’s ecclesial ontology would be wanting if what he called “open transcendentals” were not taken into account.20 Since trinitarian concepts reflect the being of God the Creator, we should expect to find them echoed consistently in the created order (making them transcendentals). The three interrelated transcendental concepts native to the being of God are perichoresis, substantiality, and relationality.21 The first, perichoresis, refers to the idea that the three persons of the Trinity exist only in reciprocal eternal relatedness. “God is not God,” Gunton writes, “apart from the way in which Father, Son and Spirit in eternity give to and receive from each other what they essentially are. The three do not merely coinhere, but dynamically constitute one another’s being.”22 Perichoresis implies free and ordered “interrelational self-formation” and, for God, “eternal interpersonal life.” This abundance and order in the divine life is part of what constitutes reality in the created order, of which the church is a part. God is what he is by virtue of the “dynamic relatedness” of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and reality at all levels displays this relatedness, its own perichoresis.23
The second transcendental, substantiality, refers primarily to the particularity of the persons in the Godhead.24 “God is what he is,” Gunton observes, “only as a communion of persons, the particularity of whom remains at the centre of all he is, for each has his own way of being. . . . Therefore . . . the particularity of created beings is established by the articularity at the heart of the being of the creator.”25 Substantiality affirms that particulars are truly particulars because everything is created by God to be and become what it distinctively is and not something else.26
Lastly, relationality refers to the notion that all things are what they are by being particulars constituted by many and various forms of relation. In God these relations exist eternally between Father, Son, and Spirit, in which there is a giving to and receiving from that is constitutive of the other. In the created universe, all things, personal and non-personal, have their beings constituted by their relationships to everything else.27 Thus, the three concepts—perichoresis, substantiality, and relationality—go hand-in-hand to describe a new kind of ontology, an ontology of communion rooted in the doctrine of the Trinity.28 This ontology is the point of departure for any understanding of the nature of the world and, for our purposes, the church.29
1.3. The Ideal versus Actual Church
An important question emerges from the above discussion, namely, what does the ontology of the church have to do with its actual being? Drawing on Col 1:18, Gunton responds by pointing out that the church’s connection to the cosmic reconciliation wrought by Christ makes the church a “community of the last times,” called to realize in its life the beginnings of the reconciliation of all things. Through the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments, the community is temporally oriented to the being of God. Proclamation turns the church to the Word, whom it is called to echo, and the sacraments direct the church to the love of the Father as it is mediated by the Son and Holy Spirit.30 Thus the church echoes the life of the Trinity when it is enabled by the Spirit to order its life to Jesus Christ.
It should be clear from his reading of Augustine and the post-Constantinian church that Gunton opposes the notion of an invisible church. Neoplatonic, monistic, and authoritarian ecclesiologies locate the true church in something other than the actual people that compose it. His rationale for rejecting this kind of “invisible church” may be understood as follows: since to be the church means to be voluntarily in communion with those who are ordered to Jesus by the Spirit (i.e., concrete individual believers), then the church must always be a visible entity. We know a true church when we see a community that freely orders and disciplines its life so that it echoes the community of the Trinity—one where perichoresis, substantiality, and relationality are freely acknowledged and lived out.31
To sum up, what we find in Gunton is an attempt to derive an ontology of the church, not from the surrounding environment, but from the uniquely Christian starting-point—the being of the triune God. The Cappadocian Fathers provide a conception of the being of God as a communion of persons—persons-in-relation—that has largely gone unnoticed in the West, to the detriment of the church. God, when conceived as the free relations of particular persons, provides a basis for an understanding of the church as a voluntary group of individual believers, drawn together by the Spirit to actualize who they were created to be.
2. The Transcendent Spirit and the Church
Among Gunton’s criticisms of traditional ecclesiologies is that they fail to take seriously the work of the Holy Spirit. Too often in history the works and judgments of churches and individuals have been identified with the work of the Spirit. Two issues lie at the heart of this mistaken identification. First, there has been a failure to recognize adequately the particular identity and work of the Holy Spirit. Second, there has been a corresponding failure to ascribe transcendence and freedom to the Spirit. Both deficiencies underlie the anemic ecclesiologies characteristic of the West.32 One of the gifts of the Cappadocians, according to Gunton, is that they developed a way to distinguish between the types of action characteristic of each person of the Trinity without destroying the unity of divine action ad extra. Gunton finds in Basil, particularly, the invaluable distinction of the Father as “original cause” of all things, the Son as the “creative cause,” and the Spirit as the “perfecting cause.” Although they do not provide us with a doctrine of the church, the Cappadocians do provide a conception of the Spirit that is concrete enough to allow clearer thinking about his relation to the church.33
Following Zizioulas, Gunton affirms that the drive toward institutionalism, that is, the identification of church structures with the Spirit results from the church giving more weight to the historical work of Christ over the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Following a Cappadocian distinction, Gunton identifies the Son as representing God’s immanence in history and the Spirit as God’s transcendence. “He [the Spirit] is God’s eschatological otherness from the world,” Gunton writes, “God freeing the created order for its true destiny—and so, to use Basil’s terminology, its perfecting cause.”34 A second and related ecclesiological point is that the Son institutes the church, while the Spirit constitutes it. This distinction is essential lest the Spirit be seen merely as the “fuel” that drives the all-important institutional vehicle.35 In such a case, the Spirit and the community are only auxiliary to an already-given reality.
What is meant by the Spirit’s constituting of the church? The church, according to Gunton, must be more than just the voluntary association of individual believers. The freedom to join the Christian community is wrought by the Spirit and is different than the autonomous notions of liberty so characteristic of secular society. The Spirit, as the “transcendent other,” liberates by calling people into relation with Christ through the medium of the church. He frees people by bringing them into community, enabling them to be with and for others whom they do not choose.36 Gunton goes on to say,
The Spirit respects our liberty, because he is not an internal, immanent causality forcing us into the Church, but a personal “other” coming alongside us to set us free for others, just as he was alongside Jesus in his temptation in the wilderness . . . [T]he positive gift of freedom is to be free in and for community: because to be free is to be in community: anything else is a denial of what it is to be human.37
The church is constituted every time the word of the gospel is proclaimed and the Holy Spirit, through that word, calls the community into being—lifting them to the Father through the Son.38 Through the Spirit the biblical narratives concerning Jesus’ victory, sacrifice, and justification become constitutive of the life of the community and create its self-understanding.39 Moreover, every true act of worship in the community is a fresh forming of the church, since the church is a community “that must, ever and again, take place: it must be constituted in the present as the people of God.” When, by the Spirit, the church offers true worship, then it is truly the church.40 Thus it is fitting to say that whenever a new member is called into this community and this body worships through the proclamation of the gospel, the church is formed anew by the sovereign Spirit, whose work in relation to the church is to call it into existence by liberating people to freely exist for their Lord and one another.41 He is not a force helping an institution accomplish its agenda, but a person who acts unfettered to bring all of creation, the church included, to its intended end.
3. The Church’s Christomorphic Orientation
Two factors need to be considered when attempting to discern the christological dimensions of a doctrine of the church.42 First, as mentioned above, the church was instituted by Jesus. The issue, then, is the character and manner in which the church was instituted and their effect on the present. If, on the one hand, Jesus’ choosing of twelve disciples was a reconstituting of Israel, then the emphasis in ecclesiology would be on the creation of a historical community. On the other hand, if Jesus was setting up the disciples as first in a line of authoritative clergy, then a more clerical ecclesiology will emerge. Gunton questions both readings and strongly opposes drawing a direct line between past historical occurrences and consequent ecclesiologies.43
The way forward lies in the second factor to be considered, namely, that of the significance of the dogmatic Jesus for ecclesiology. This matter concerns the way in which the church is seen to be patterned after or shaped by the life of the God-man.44 A Christology that overemphasizes the divine Christ—the omniscient and infallible One—will issue in an ecclesiology with an over-inflated self-understanding. Gunton wants to place a much-needed stress on the ecclesiological significance of the humanity of Jesus. He asks, “If our christology take [sic] on board the full implications of the contingency and fallibility of Jesus, what of the church?”45 According to Gunton, Jesus, as a truly human being, partook of the same contingency, fallibility, and defectibility (indeed defectiveness) as all humans, yet he did not sin. However, his sinlessness was not due to some “inbuilt divine programming,” but to his “free acceptance of the Spirit’s guidance.” How can the church, full as it is of sinful people, Gunton asks, “claim more for itself than it claims for him?”46 Following Owen, he limits the immediate operation of the second Person of the Trinity on Jesus’ human nature to that of its assumption. The humanity of Jesus remains authentically human and is not overcome by the immanent reality of the Word.47 It is the Spirit, not the Word, who is the source of the particularity, freedom, and contingency of Jesus’ humanity. This pattern has implications for our doctrine of the church. The same Spirit who constitutes the church (granting its own particularity and freedom) will give the church a “christomorphic direction,” according to Jesus’ true humanity and, thus, not the authoritarian and infallibilist shape of the past.48 It is this checking of Christology by pneumatology that is so crucial to Gunton’s perspective on the ongoing role of the second person of the Trinity in the church.49
Gunton is also concerned with ecclesiologies that overweight a theology of the body of Christ. He argues that Lutheran Christologies that tend to view Christ’s physical body as ubiquitous are not as successful in making room for the work of the Holy Spirit in the church because there is too close an identification of the church with Christ. This view, at least as represented by Robert Jenson, too easily lapses into seeing the church as the actual body of an ever-immanent Christ.50 However, 1 Corinthians, Gunton argues extensively, emphasizes a strong distinction between Christ and his body. For example, the “until he comes” of 1 Cor 11:26 suggests that there is actually a real absence of Christ and, thus, he remains transcendently over the church as its Lord.51 It is when, like Calvin, one views the body of Christ as physically circumscribed that greater space is given for the distinctive work of the Spirit in the church. Furthermore, 1 Cor 15:23 distinguishes between Christ’s resurrection and our own, thus calling attention to the distinction between Christ and his church.52 Here, as elsewhere, Gunton emphasizes that the church is an eschatological reality. Its worship and life is bracketed by the remembered gift of the Son for the life of the world and the anticipated gift of the Son’s handing over of all rule and authority to the Father (1 Cor 15:24).53 The line between present experience and eschatology must not be blurred.
4. Gunton, the Trinity, and the Church: A Response
This essay has thus far attempted to allow the reader to hear Gunton’s voice as he explicates his doctrine of the church. We must now ask some questions and offer an appraisal of his proposals. The evaluation can be summarized as follows: Gunton’s setup—Augustine and his legacy—questionably reads the tradition; he employs trinitarian concepts provocatively and intriguingly but requires some clarification; and some features of his ecclesial ontology, along with his unique christological-pneumatological proposal, present his most original and potentially fruitful contributions.
4.1. The Setup: Augustine and Western Tradition
In order to situate his proposal Gunton expresses unease with (or rather distaste for) Augustine’s contribution to trinitarian thought and, consequently, ecclesiology in the West. This setup of Augustine (and much of the western tradition) as whipping-boy and foil raises a few questions. However, since a number of recent writers have taken to task this trendy reading of Augustine in general,54 I will simply pose a two-part question related to Gunton’s reading of Augustine’s ecclesiology:
1. Is it fair to say that Augustine’s ecclesiology is an offshoot of a monistic theology?
2. What alternative readings of Augustine's doctrine of the church might be offered in light of Augustine’s essentially Nicene trinitarianism?
Augustine’s ecclesiology is more complicated than simply being about the hierarchy or the invisibility of the church. For him, the church is primarily founded upon the reality of the trinitarian God who himself created the church.55 Building upon that foundation, there are various dimensions to his ecclesiology.
First, the church is referred to as transhistorical, spanning from the OT era until the present, comprised of all those who have placed their faith in the revealed God.56 The OT situation differs from that of the NT in that since Pentecost the church is a concrete and universal community, the proper environment for the nurture of faith, and the way to salvation.57
Second, the church is the “body of Christ,” a gathering of renewed persons into communion with Christ. The body is constituted whenever persons freely assent to be the body of Christ by serving God, one another, and the kingdom.58 Furthermore, the church is so intimately united with Christ that it really becomes his body on earth, the expression of the fullness of his humanity—although remaining a fully human entity itself.59
Third, the church is made up of the people, but people are united to Christ and one another only by the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, the church is a mixed body, consisting of true and false believers as well as believers who operate from sometimes pure, sometimes impure motives. Augustine is quite realistic about the church. He acknowledges that the church exists between the times, but also recognizes that it is oriented toward its perfection.60 It is in the process of growing from a mixed body to the perfect body of Christ. The true church, in one sense, is purely an eschatological reality.
A more adequate reading of Augustine, therefore, is that the distinction between the visible (the concrete community of believers) and invisible (the hierarchy, institution, or underlying reality) church is not necessarily ontological, but rather, eschatological. It is not that the being of the church is anterior to the concrete historical relationships of the visible community, but that the true and mixed historical church is on its way to becoming the pure church, with false “members” excised and true members glorified. The whole community is called to be the church, but really it is only those who are for God and one another that constitute the church.61 Again, this friendlier reading of Augustine gives one pause when considering Gunton’s setup.
Furthermore, the NT speaks of an invisible and eschatological assembly—the church of the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, those who presently partake in the worship of the New Jerusalem (Heb 12:22–24). Indeed the author of Hebrews, at various points, hints at this eschatological dimension of the invisible church: we share in Christ now, if we continue to hold on to truth of the gospel till the end (e.g., Heb 3:14). Put differently, we are the true church if we demonstrate ourselves to be so in the end. Thus, the invisible church is an eschatological reality known only to God. Moreover, in Col 1:18 and throughout Ephesians, Paul speaks of the ekkl?sia as a heavenly and eschatological reality. The church is the assembly of all those who are currently “seated in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5–6), over which the cosmic Christ is head (1:22–23; Col 1:18).62 The point here is that talk of an invisible church need not be rooted in a blind acceptance of Platonistic dualism, but rather can find resources in the biblical material. In the light of Scripture, Gunton’s critique of Western ecclesiologies, at the very least, requires some nuance.
4.2. Trinitarian Terminology: Perichoresis and Communion
Interpersonal relations loom large in Gunton’s ecclesial ontology, as demonstrated by his repeated use of the concepts of perichoresis and communion. However, his deployment of these terms raises a few methodological and conceptual questions. Regarding perichoresis, one must ask: what is the intent and what are the proper limits to the doctrine of perichoresis?
Gunton employs perichoresis as a transcendental rooted in the Trinity. It is described, we may recall, as the free and ordered “interrelational self-formation” and “eternal interpersonal life” of the Trinity. It denotes more than coinherence, but the dynamic constitution of one another’s being. This shift in definition seems to push the limits of the concept for the sake of a fuller understanding of the relationality of the cosmos and of the church. In traditional discussions, however, the doctrine of perichoresis was applied to the Trinity to affirm the oneness of the Godhead.63 The logic was as follows. Common essence is not enough to make Father, Son, and Holy Spirit one, since multiple human beings can be said to share the same essence (humanness) yet never be one. Thus, in the Godhead there has to be something unique that unites the persons.64 This is the notion of perichoresis, that is, the mutual indwelling of the persons. Already assuming the distinction of persons, the main concern of this doctrine was to show that in essence and in action each person of the Godhead interpenetrates the others (and vice versa), individuating properties excluded.65 Perichoresis thus had the important but limited role of upholding the oneness of God within a trinitarian context.
However, in communitarian understandings of the Trinity, like Gunton’s, the concept is being marshaled for quite the opposite purpose. The kinds of questions with which one approaches the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g., what is its contemporary relevance? Can it remedy the ills of modern and postmodern society?) shape what kind of Trinity one gets and, for our purposes, what is made of perichoresis.
Karen Kilby, in an illuminating essay, captures the logic of communitarian models and their use of perichoresis in this manner. First, they begin with a picture of God that more resembles three humans with distinct centers of will and self-consciousness.66 In order to resist tritheism they must find a way to show that these three are one God. They, therefore, appeal to something beyond our experience that binds the three together as one, namely, divine perichoresis. Next, perichoresis is explained by what binds human persons together—mutual giving, love, interrelatedness, etc.—and used to show what binds the three persons of the Godhead as one. What unites the Godhead is like the best we know of these things, but at an unimaginably greater level, lest we posit three gods in a family and not three persons in God. Though this kind of move is somewhat typical of much God-talk, Kilby insightfully observes what is unique about the communitarian approach:
[W]hat is at its heart a suggestion to overcome a difficulty is presented as a key source of inspiration and insight. So the social theorist [communitarian] does not just say, perhaps the divine perichoresis, which we can understand as being akin to our best relationships, only better, makes the three Persons into one God; she goes on to say, should we not model our relationships on this wonderful thing, the divine perichoresis?67
Thus we have a three-stage process wherein perichoresis is (1) used to explain the oneness of God in a communitarian schema, (2) filled with positive human notions of relatedness and relationship, and (3) presented as an important trinitarian resource that Christian theology can offer the church and the outside world. Going beyond the less important issue of redefining traditionally circumscribed trinitarian language, this approach is problematic in that it first projects something onto God and then turns around and presents that projection as what is relevant and important about the triune God for the world.68 It is along these lines that Gunton’s use of perichoresis should at least be queried.
This analysis leads somewhat to the final question: What does speech about the community of persons in the Godhead reveal about the persons? Or, are communion and community interchangeable terms, as they appear to be for Gunton?69 Whether due to imprecision or intentionality, Gunton does not preserve this important distinction. “Community” commonly carries with it individualistic notions of the persons, in which individuals with their own wills and self-consciousness join together to form a society of sorts. This conception is absent in the works of at least one Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa, who, for example, speaks of the “communion” of persons, but confines “community” to essence.70 His emphasis in light of the Eunomian controversies is on the unity of the divine Nature.71 Not only does he not begin with persons or prioritize persons over substance (contra Gunton), but when he does refer to persons (ekkl?sia or prosopon) it is a severely limited term without individualistic overtones.72 For him the term “communion” serves to maintain the mystery of union and distinction in the Godhead. Therefore, as helpful as the existence of “community” in/as the being of God might be for expounding an alternative ecclesiology, it may be, once again, in danger of reading too much creaturely reality back into the Trinity. Perichoresis is not best understood as a community event, but as a mysterious communion of essence between the hypostaseis of the Godhead. At the very least, some conceptual clarity on Gunton’s part would have been a great help in better understanding his proposal.
While it may be commendable to attempt to move beyond an extreme apophatism and say something about inner-trinitarian relationships beyond the fact of their relations of origin, perhaps some caution must be exercised. The crucial (and perhaps ingenious) move in Gunton’s ecclesial ontology is his development of the idea of relationality (as well as substantiality and perichoresis) as a transcendental. The very being of the triune God exhibits, indeed defines, relationality, and his creation displays the same characteristic. If true, the church as the initial locus of the new creation exhibits these attributes par excellence. However, as one writer has recently pointed out, in order to be properly trinitarian there must be an effort to “preserve an ontological distinction between God and humanity in order to maintain an order consistent with their distinct natures.”73 Therefore, extending trinitarian language such as “perichoresis,” “relations,” “persons,” and “communion” must proceed with great caution.
4.3. Ways Forward? Trinitarian/Pneumatic-Christological Ecclesiology
While Gunton rejects particular notions of an “invisible church,” his ecclesiology may still be viewed as an attempt to mediate between conceptions of the church as visible and invisible, present and eschatological, particular and universal, imperfect and perfect, and its reality versus its place as an article of faith. While these are perennial problems in ecclesiological theory and practice, Gunton’s proposals provide a number of unique and helpful contributions. The first of these might be elucidated by placing it beside a confessional ecclesiology
The Westminster Confession (1647) speaks of the church in three distinct ways. First, the universal church is invisible, consisting of “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof” (25.1). Second, the church is visible, that is, consisting of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion . . . and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2).74 Third, this visible church is organized into particular churches that are more or less pure according to how well they display the “marks of the true church”75 (25.4).
Gunton’s ecclesiology moves us beyond not only the invisible-visible distinction, but also that of the true versus less true visible church. As noted earlier, if the church, ontologically speaking, is constituted by particular persons in free relation to one another, oriented toward Christ by the Spirit, then locating the church in election, hierarchy, or individual belief can be somewhat revised or at least supplemented. The church is not merely invisible (category 1), nor is it the essentially invisible conglomeration of particular believing individuals from around the world (category 2). It is, rather, a grouping of those who choose to exist in community with one another because of Jesus Christ and the Spirit, that is, people who actually relate and are instrumental in the fulfillment of one another’s telos in Christ. This is not to deny that the church does consist of those elect of God who believe the gospel. However, the emphasis necessarily shifts toward the being of God and, consequently, to the concrete relationships that constitute the church and away from less constructive and less practically (spiritually) beneficial conceptions. In many ways, this is how the NT construes the church primarily: as those who gather, for example, in Corinth (1 Cor 1:2), in the home of Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:5), or in the region of Galatia (Gal 1:1–2).76 The church is an identifiable pneumatic, Christomorphic communion of particular persons who apart from these free relations would no longer be the church.
Along with placing a much-needed emphasis on the importance of the particular communities we inhabit, this move in the direction of ontology at the very least lightens the definitional load placed upon the Reformation “marks of the true church” and may thus create more space for ecumenical (small e) dialogue concerning the nature of the church. The “marks”—the preaching of the “pure doctrine of the gospel,” the “pure administration of the sacraments,” and the exercise of church discipline—can be variously interpreted by different traditions, not to mention fiercely debated. The ecumenical potential of a trinitarian ontology of the church might prove more promising, as confessional or parochial criteria (standards) take a backseat to the open-ended criterion of Christ-centered, Spirit-enabled relationality.
Finally, describing the church as the “body of Christ” and the “communion of saints” draws proper attention to the christological and pneumatological facets of ecclesiology. However, as Gunton argues, these images by themselves may help to foster an overly elevated understanding of the church’s nature. He innovatively posits that what is needed for a healthy ecclesiology is rather a pneumatic Christology and a Christocentric pneumatology. The former highlights the humanity of Christ by underscoring his dependence on the Holy Spirit during his earthly life. Although one should not follow Gunton (who follows Edward Irving) in attributing fallenness to Christ’s humanity, a consequence for ecclesiology of emphasizing Christ’s Spirit-dependent humanity is a stress on the humanity of the church. The church is the “body” of a Christ who lived a human life in full reliance on the Spirit. The church is not the kingdom, but rather a human community dependent on the Spirit to grant it the kind of life it is intended to live.77 The latter—Christocentric pneumatology—emphasizes the Spirit’s function of bringing about the “not-yet” aspects of Christ’s redemptive work, which includes conforming the church to Christ’s likeness. The incompleteness of the Spirit’s Christocentric work again highlights the church’s humanity. Christology and pneumatology framed this way then create space for a properly eschatological perspective on the church. The church is simul iustus et peccator, but also oriented toward the future, its consummation, its perfection. In terms of ethics, the church may be realistic about its achievements and deeply aware of its failures, but hopeful as to its end.78 Thus Gunton makes a unique contribution to ecclesiology and in doing so addresses the disappointed minister and layperson with whom this essay opened. By deploying an arsenal of dogmatic resources—primarily a pneumatologically controlled Christology and a christologically controlled pneumatology—he provides a creative response to the ever-perplexing question of the real versus ideal in the church. At one and the same time the church can think quite highly and rather soberly about itself. It is a gathering of those belonging to the God and Father of Jesus Christ, yet those who display the marks of citizens of the City of Humanity.
Pastors and laypeople, then, should not expect more of the church than is appropriate for what it actually is. In light of Gunton’s trinitarian ecclesiology, the church is this or that communion of broken but freely relating individuals drawn together in Christ, which by the Holy Spirit is given the time and space to become what it is meant to be. Disappointment and disillusionment come when the eschatological dimension of the church’s being is not sufficiently taken into account. When a congregation does not rise willingly to the challenge of the sermon, or take active part in the church’s ministry, it merely demonstrates its reality as a creature between the times. When it is difficult for newcomers and old-timers to find meaningful fellowship, or when supposed hypocrites abound in the community, the imperfection of the church’s humanity is accented. The church is an imperfect and incomplete sign of the present and coming kingdom of God; it is a Spirit-endowed human reality. It is with these eyes—those able to view the present state of the church in light of its appointed telos—that we are to relate to the body of Christ.
Furthermore, once rightly oriented to the church’s anthropic nature, every member is thus to function as an instrument of the Spirit’s eschatological perfecting of the church. Christians within concrete congregations are called to be the means by which God’s ends are accomplished in the church. For example, we are summoned to a certain attentiveness to the “priestly” obligations we have toward one another, chiefly, to minister the Word of God. According to Luther, it is this “unofficial” ministry of the Word that leads to and sustains the reformation of the church. Indeed, if all believers are priests, and priesthood is defined primarily by the ministry of the Word, then a properly functioning priesthood leads to the pervasive presence of God’s Word amidst his people.79 Luther’s concern was that by limiting the priesthood to a select few, we weaken the capacity for the Word of God to correct and shape the church. Therefore, in one sense Luther democratizes access to and ministry of the Word, but not to the exclusion of ordained ministers or to encourage individualism. Rather, he delivers the Word of God to every believer so that each is made responsible for the encouragement, comfort, and discipline of others, and all this for the sake of the entire church. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is thus an eschatological directive: if the church is to move toward what it will be, every Christian must take seriously his or her role in reforming or, better, conforming the church to the likeness of Christ, and pastors must prepare them for these works of ministry.
In his effort to bring the doctrine of the Trinity into meaningful contact with the doctrine of the church, Colin Gunton delves into the closely related areas of theological ontology, pneumatology, Christology, and eschatology. Despite his unfortunate misrepresentation of Augustine and the western tradition as well as his sometimes unclear use of trinitarian terminology, Gunton’s careful attempt to root the nature of the church in the being and action of God opens up possibilities for realistic and open notions of what the church is and can be. Whether or not his work yields any fruit in the field of modern ecclesiological discourse remains to be seen.