Published in Church & Society, Vol. 1, No. 2, August 1998, a periodical of Trinity Theological College, Singapore. It is an extract and adaptation of a major theme in my thesis, now published as my book.
The Holy Trinity as the basis of the Church
A. The Church in the World of Today
The Church today lives in a highly complex world. Such issues as apartheid, AIDS, homosexuality, women's liberation, the ordination of women, rich versus poor, terrorism, civil unrest, oppressive regimes and revolutions face churches at this or that place or everywhere. Myriad interest and pressure groups call for changes and reforms. Divergent views without and within resulting in conflict or indecision threaten to rend it apart. Many new movements or influences such as Pentecostalism, the Charismatic Renewal, the Liturgical Movement have brought new fervour and controversy. At the same time there is the growth of many different new theologies, such as feminist theology, black theology, liberation theology, Minjung theology, which are coming from the reflections of Christians from a far greater cultural diversity than ever before.
The Church has met these with mixed fortunes. There is unprecedented church growth in areas which have in the past been unresponsive to the Gospel or have fallen to ritualism, compromise with non-Christian influences and traditionalism. Latin America, Africa, South, East, and Southeast Asia in overt and covert ways have experienced such surges. Paradoxically there is decline in church attendance’s and an increase in secularism in Western Europe which has in the past been the bastion of Christianity, although there are signs of revival. Similar tendencies are found in other Western nations. There have been moves towards mutual recognition and reconciliation between churches but there are also schisms and quarrels. Never before has the Church existed and thrived in such a variety and range of national, cultural, political, social and economic groupings all over the world. This is itself a result of its own spread and evangelisation. Consequently, never before has the Church around the world faced at once such a diversity of theological, social, ethical, moral and political issues in varying degrees of localisation and universality.
B. The Need for a Sound Theology of the Church
As the Church faces this new social, political, economic, environmental and theological world climate, the demands and pressures for it to respond to the situations, to reassert or to redefine its identity and role, to be different or to conform increases. The necessity for an in-depth self-understanding of its nature and mission is eminently urgent lest she incurs serious damage with the loss, confusion, or misconception of its own essence in responding to or in denying these challenges. Any proper theology of the Church would require serious theological reflection. A fundamental question is whether there is any distinctiveness that is its own such that it does not merely respond to issues but have an agenda of its own to accomplish and something unique to contribute to all that is around it. The way in which ecclesiology is approached is a key factor in how this will be answered. Implicit and basic to any ecclesiology is the perspective or the assumptions on which it is based. This affects not only the methodology for the construction of the ecclesiology and its content but also the manner and potentiality by which ecclesiology can be related to or integrated with theology as a whole and with the pastoral and ministerial situation the Church faces in the world. This is the area of ecclesiological construction with which we need to be concerned. Such a concern comes from nothing less than the need and call we have as Christians and as churchmen to bring the truths of the Gospel and Bible to bear upon our lives and upon this world in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
It is not surprising that in the face of all these issues that confront the Church that writings concerning the Church are voluminous and varied today. Indeed these issues have brought the modern disciplines of sociology, political science, organisation and management to bear upon the study and examination of the nature and mission of the Church. This comes in addition to the more traditional treatments of theology, church polity and Bible study. For unlike doctrines such as Christology and Pneumatology which do not lent themselves to scientific and sociological study, the Church as a visible human entity is entirely open to the scrutiny of the social, organisational and management sciences. Furthermore, the Church is divided into different denominations which emphasise some particular polity and some particular theology that make each distinctive. Therefore no in-depth or comprehensive consensus on the nature and mission of the Church has ever been formalised. In the face of modern pressures and treatments many different views are simultaneously held and practised.
Understanding the Church on the basis of the Holy Trinity
Nevertheless, there appears to be some degree of informal consensus being reached among serious theologians and church leaders of different denominations with respect to the need to understand the nature and mission of the Church from a trinitarian perspective. This is noteworthy in the face of otherwise very disparate approaches and views. We trace this trend through the three broad streams of Christianity in the world today:
A. Roman Catholicism
Roman Catholicism had for a long time entrenched itself in the Medieval position in reaction against the challenges of the Reformation. Its view of the Church was expressed along with other doctrinal positions in the Council of Trent and characterised the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Church. It insistently rejected Protestant principles and reaffirmed the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church against the calls for reconceptualization and reform. Many abuses however were corrected and internal controls over clerical quality and practices were tightened. This was true of the official Roman Catholic position until Vatican II, which was held as recently as 1962 to 1965. In Vatican II Pope John XXIII specified that the nature of the Church and openness to ecumenical relations were the key concerns. There followed the very momentous and historic declaration of a new understanding of the nature of the Church. It differentiated between the "Corpus Christi mysticum" and the "Visible Church" and identified the former along with the concept of "People of God" as the nature of the Church. It also recognised the laity as members of the universal priesthood and lightened the rigidity of a clerical-lay dichotomy. These are very significant departures from a strict institutional conception that it held for many centuries. Similarly a definite move to ecumenical relations was made. A new mood of optimism for church renewal and reconceptualization comes across, for example, in the writings of Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and John Thornhill, who are respectively German, Dutch, and Australian, and also Jesuit, Dominican, and Marist. They worked with the concept of the Church as sacrament or as communion, which follows on the cue set in Vatican II. It has been hailed by many Protestants as a major step to better relations and understanding with Rome. Notably, in Thornhill, we can see a move towards a trinitarian ecclesiology. Leonardo Boff, a Roman Catholic priest and a proponent of Liberation Theology from Latin America, calls for the formation of Christian base communities as a new form of Church. Yet he does this in a decisively trinitarian way. Hans Küng, a Roman Catholic who disagreed with the official Roman Catholic conception of the Church, has set out an ecclesiology that notes the Trinity as a key factor to it.
B. Eastern Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy has developed along the lines of the Greek fathers, especially the Cappadocian fathers, which was a decidedly trinitarian position. It did not face the upheavals either of doctrines or of its structures as the Roman Catholic Church did in the West. Consequently the path of development of its theology is much more strongly marked by continuity with the Patristic Period. It did dialogue with the different streams of the Reformation and Counter Reformation following these events but continued to have a distinctiveness of its own. There is therefore much consistency and unity in its conception of the Church. Lossky notes the double aspects of the Church as jointly created by the Christ and the Holy Spirit and the intimate communion of the Persons of the godhead in the mystery of the Church and the Church in union with God. It is "an image of the Holy Trinity". It is also the "macro-anthropos" and the centre of the universe, even as man is a microcosm of the same universe. Florovsky stresses the church as the theanthropic union, the continuation and fulfilment of the incarnation of Christ where mankind becomes one. It is ontologically a whole and a communion. Pentecost is the fiery Holy Spirit baptism of the whole Church such that the incarnation is being completed in the Church. Zizioulas explains that the church is an ontological reality and is "a mode of existence" and "a way of being" bound in relationship and communion with the triune God. Emilianos Timiadis also reflects the renewed emphasis today on the trinitarian nature of the Church as there was among the patristic writers in dialogue with the Reformed tradition. Therefore the trinitarian approach to ecclesiology continues to be developed today by this stream.
Protestantism in its myriad expressions produced an equally varied variety of theologies and conceptions of the church. Tracing very briefly and broadly from the time of the Reformation, the main thrusts of Luther, Calvin and other Reformers, however, persist and have become the base from which many new perspectives, insights and developments have sprouted. There is therefore a notable proliferation of multi-paradigmic approaches to ecclesiology. Yet in the midst of this diversity is what seems to be a growing degree of attention on a trinitarian basis to ecclesiology. Helmut Thielicke's conception of the Church is a modern day version of Martin Luther's emphasis on the Church as being created by the word and the Spirit and is vitally the Church of Christ. The trinitarian framework forms the means of developing this ecclesiology. An Anglican position is presented by E. L. Mascall who develops on the concept of the Church as the ontological Mystical Body of Christ without equating it with the institutional structure as the Roman Catholic Church did until Vatican II. He also takes account of the trinitarian nature of the Church although he does not use it as his principal paradigm. Jürgen Moltmann, from a Reformed tradition, sees the Church through multiple concepts and perspectives but stresses the role of the Holy Spirit from a fundamentally trinitarian approach. T. F. Torrance, from a Presbyterian tradition, draws from Eastern Orthodox and patristic sources and highlights the trinitarian nature of the Church. Colin Gunton is another who has taken to emphasising the trinitarian approach to ecclesiology.
Why Trinitarian Ecclesiology
We shall note some factors as to why trinitarian ecclesiology is attractive and significant:
Firstly the trinitarian approach has proved to be the most historically enduring approach to ecclesiology. It was the view of the Cappadocian fathers and has been particularly and consistently upheld by Eastern Orthodoxy as the ecclesiology of choice. While the institutional view, which is the other equally early position on the Church, is facing decline in interest, the trinitarian view is being accorded greater emphasis today.
Secondly this approach in effect immediately puts ecclesiology in touch with other doctrines by integrating it as an aspect of theology as a whole. At least potentially, all theological concepts can be related to the triune God as its source. Therefore ecclesiology, along with any other doctrine, would at least implicitly, if not explicitly, find the Trinity to be the key to theological integration. This is the case for the Eastern Orthodox treatment of ecclesiology. This points to its power of integration and potential scope of coverage.
Thirdly the second point also shows the enormous potential of this position for acting as the central paradigm by which all other paradigms of the Church can find a place. It does seem to me that the multiple paradigmatic situation of today would need some such factor to give it focus without necessarily dissipating or discounting the contribution of the diverse paradigms. It is in fact likely to benefit from a paradigm that can give to each its appropriate place in the understanding of the Church. The trinitarian approach appears to be the best candidate for such a role. This may be considered as both a feature of its integrative and interpretative power.
Fourthly the trinitarian approach is the credal position as set forth in the Nicene Creed as it stands today. This is the affirmation of virtually all traditions of the Church. Therefore it has the potential of becoming a universally acceptable conception of the Church among all Christians.
Fifthly this is an essentially relational and communal approach to ecclesiology that emphasises the unity and harmony of the body of believers universally, not only among ourselves but between the Church and the Trinity and even within the Trinity itself. The eternal bond of the Persons of the One God becomes the very basis and source for the bonding of all together in Him and with Him. The growth of this unity in the life of the Church on earth today is an ever important and urgent priority. This seems to carry many points of guidance and application for the Church’s inner life and outward witness.
Sixthly the Church is set in a position of dependence and communion with the Trinity who is the God it worships. This demonstrates directly the cruciality of this God for its life and mission. It is a doxologically, devotionally and theologically satisfying position for those who are of the faith to understand themselves. The Trinity forms the foundation of all that the Church is called to be and to fulfil. Like the fifth point, it seems to have many points of guidance and application for the Church in its life and mission.
Lastly, in view of all the above, it is likely to be the approach that would yield the fullest understanding of the Church at the deepest level. It would therefore reveal and release the deepest, strongest and widest level of divine guidance and power for inner life and outward mission.
Features of Trinitarian Ecclesiology
The relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity and the Church is a truth that is plainly stated in the Bible. The Church is the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit and the New Israel of God. However, the tendency of the Church in history is to emphasise the christological dimension, often at the expense of the pneumatological dimension and the place of the Father. In recent times, with the Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewals, the place of the Holy Spirit is finding emphasis. To a lesser extent, the place of the Father is also being acknowledged. The in-depth exploration of this trinitarian dimension of ecclesiology is a much larger and harder task. For while the relationship between each Person of the Trinity and the Church are plain statements of the New Testament, there is very little elaboration within the NT of its deeper and wider implications. This is left to the Church to develop for our own education and guidance under the leading and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I believe that Boff has rightly suggested, quite insightfully, that the way by which the different denominations emphasises the different Persons of the Trinity deeply affects the life and structure of the Church and its polity. Roman Catholicism, that tends to emphasise the priority of the Father over the Son and the Spirit in a hierarchical fashion, has developed an institutional, hierarchical structure of polity and mission. Classical Protestant denominations, which tends to emphasise the priority of the Son, of Jesus Christ as the Head of the Church, tend toward a professional, functional and organisational structure and approach to polity and mission. Pentecostalism, which tends to emphasise the priority of the Holy Spirit, tends towards a charismatic, personality-centred, spontaneous approach to polity and mission. This insight goes some way in showing us how important and extensive is the impact of the way we understand, and therefore relate with, our God! I am of the view that a balanced and well-developed trinitarian understanding of our God, that guides our worship of Him and our relationship to Him, is necessary for the wholeness and fullness of the Church and its mission. In this light and within the limit of this article-length work, we shall explore in survey fashion just two approaches as to how the nature and mission of the Church can be understood in terms of its relationship to the Holy Trinity. They are Jürgen Moltmann, from the German Reformed tradition, and John D. Zizioulas, from Greek Orthodoxy. They are chosen on the basis that they are both strong proponents of trinitarian ecclesiology and for the contrast between their traditions, theological bases and methods.
A. Personhood and Eucharist
We shall now lay out the main propositions of the trinitarian basis of Zizioulas's ecclesiology to give a broad overview of how these weave together as a whole. For Zizioulas, the principal feature of ecclesiology is that the Church is a "mode of existence" or "a way of being". As a mode of existence the Church has to be distinguished from biological life with its social and individualistic existence. Biological life is transient and fragmented because of sin. The Church is freed from sin and is absolute and catholic rather than transient and fragmented in its essence. Becoming a member of the Church involves a divine transformation of one's being. The Church is fundamentally united to God in His "way of being". It is an ontological being which is founded in Christ as His Body and constituted by the Holy Spirit so that the Church is inseparably united to both Christ and the Spirit who are Persons of the triune godhead. In that God is the Holy Trinity it means that the being of God is in fact "relational being". The one God who is the Holy Trinity makes communion an ontological category because God exists as "an event of communion". The ontology of the Church is based on the ontology of the Holy Trinity. This ontology is the ontology of personhood which is the basis of relational being, especially as explicated by the Cappadocian fathers. Personhood stands in contrast to monism and individualism in being a relational and free rather than monolithic and necessitarian ontological reality. It is relational personhood that makes the Church absolute and catholic. This relational reality is Truth for the being of God is Truth. In that divine being is the communion of the Holy Trinity so Truth is identified with communion. The concrete manifestation of this communion, which is the vital core of what the Church is, is to be found in the Eucharist. The eucharist therefore forms the core of what the Church is. It is at once the christological and pneumatological and, correspondingly, historical and eschatological essence of the Church. The being of the Church and its ministries are founded upon this eucharistic core.
In gist, Zizioulas’ trinitarian ecclesiology stands on the following foundational features:
1. The concept of the Person as relational being and that both God and men are persons and of the Church as a unique entity formed and living in this relational reality
2. His concept of the Holy Trinity and of Truth as Communion where Communion forms the essence of the triunity of God and this character of the triune God is Truth and this Truth that is expressed in the Eucharist in union with the Church
3. Christology and Pneumatology are equally essential to Ecclesiology
4. The Eucharist as the essence of the Church, where the christological and pneumatological dimensions combine
B. Promise and History
We shall now present an overview of Jürgen Moltmann’s trinitarian ecclesiology. The foundation of Moltmann's perspective on the Church is to be found in his eschatological theology. The matter of particular interest and of prime importance for us is his concept of history. This is the key to what he means by the history of the Trinity which is fundamental to his explanation. This history has itself to be understood on the basis of the biblical concept of promise, which is bound up with the biblical meaning of revelation. In order to rightly understand his concept of history, we shall briefly examine his explanation of the biblical concept of promise which forms its basis and is central to its content. In fact promise stands as a prime basis of his theology as proposed by his trilogy of Theology of Hope , The Crucified God and The Church in the Power of the Spirit . It is in this trilogy that he develops his trinitarian ecclesiology.
The importance of promise and revelation for Moltmann's theology is shown when he introduces his theology of hope. This is a theology where eschatology is not simply the doctrine of the last things, a mere appendix to the major themes. It is instead the organising principle of Christian theology itself. Hence we dubbed this as his eschatological theology. As he puts it,
...eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired by it. From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. Eschatology is the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah. Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole Church.
He further specifies that God is
the `God of hope'(Rom. 15.13), a God with `future as his essential nature'(as E. Bloch puts it), as made known in Exodus and in Israelite prophecy, the God whom we therefore cannot really have in us or over us but always only before us, who encounters us in his promises for the future, and whom we therefore cannot `have' either, but can only await in active hope.
He explains the basis by which this eschatological theology can express the future which has yet to materialise:
Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such. It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future. Christian eschatology speaks of Jesus Christ and his future. It recognizes the reality of the raising of Jesus and proclaims the future of the risen Lord. Hence the question whether all statements about the future are grounded in the person and history of Jesus Christ provides it with the touchstone by which to distinguish the spirit of eschatology from that of utopia.
For Moltmann, it is the promises of God that direct our attention and the content of Christianity to the future and gives us hope. As the Bible, the Old and the New Testament, is filled with the promises of the God of hope, so also the Christian faith is primarily shaped by the priority of the future that these promises consistently point to. The fact that he defines, bases and develops his theology on the biblical meaning of promise is, I believe, a point of great strength. The statement that God is the God of hope, points similarly to an understanding of God in terms of the promises He makes. It lays stress on the historical and the prophetic in the Bible as the bases upon which God is to be known. It is also significant that the eschatology he espouses has nothing to do with speculative projections, sophisticated calculations or obscure subjectivistic interpretations of biblical prophecy to determine or divine the future. He roots the knowledge of the future firmly on the historically established life and act of Jesus, especially His death and resurrection. This means in essence that the future he refers to consists of what the biblical witness plainly specifies is its message. It is, therefore, a very specific future that he refers to. It is the one in which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ holds the centre ground. It is where this same Christ event forms the test as to whether any particular statement of the future belongs to this unique future of Christ or to some other form of future. It is only with this future of Christ that this eschatological theology is concerned.
Moltmann expands on this concept of the cross of Christ as the central event of history and eschatology so that it is to be be understood as in fact the history of the Trinity. For the Persons of the Trinity were present and active at the cross of Jesus. So the history of the Trinity is developed by him as the theology of the cross. He based this on Luther's point that the cross is the very revelation of God to us. The three Persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all active at the cross in different ways. The cross is a divine event. It is an occurrence between the Persons of the godhead that is enacted and revealed in and to this world. The cross is the very centre of the biblical, historical and eschatological revelation of the triunity of God. He further asserts that it is a movement of the Trinity in history. In that it is such a concrete event, the Trinity cannot anymore be understood as a metaphysical abstraction. It breaks the traditional dichotomy made between the economic and immanent Trinity. For the event of the cross is an event of the inner community of the triune God. It is not simply an appearance of something beyond in an epiphanistic sense but is the very presence and action of the Trinity. In reality the very inner core of the Trinity was actually present and revealed at the cross.
For Moltmann, the Church is created, abides and thrives within the history of the Trinity. The existence of the Church, its belief and hope in Christ, its sacraments, its offices, its ministries and its mission are all aspects of the mission and movement of the Trinity in creation and in salvation. The Church is to hold on to the promises of God in hope. Its life is open to the future of such promises and thus also open to experience history in all its concrete reality. We may see these as the present eschatological manifestations of the coming of the Kingdom of God that lies in the future. Moltmann himself gives a good summary of his position:
It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil to the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church, creating a church as it goes on its way. It is not the church that administers the Spirit as the Spirit of preaching, the Spirit of the sacraments, the Spirit of the ministry or the Spirit of tradition. The Spirit `administers' the church with the events of word and faith, sacrament and grace, offices and traditions. If the church understands itself, with all its tasks and powers, in the Spirit and against the horizon of the Spirit's history, then it also understands its particularity as one element in the power of the Spirit...
We can readily identify from this quote the prime foundation of the trinitarian ecclesiology of Moltmann is the concept of the history of the Trinity. In particular, the history of the Trinity is based on the history of Jesus Christ and the history of the Holy Spirit. The Church cannot be understood in itself but in relation to and in the light of this history. This trinitarian history is itself developed from the perspective of his eschatological theology. This means understanding history on the basis of the biblical concepts of revelation and promise. This calls for an eschatological perspective. It is therefore a theology that is grounded on and developed from the significance of the meaning of the end of all things - the eschatological finale as promised by God. The Church stands as one factor in this eschatological history of the Trinity. He presents a largely clear and direct, if multifaceted, line of reasoning that delineates the nature and mission of the Church from this foundation.
The principal propositions in Moltmann's trinitarian ecclesiology are as follows:
1. History as founded on the character and certainty of God’s Promise and on the character and certainty of Christ
2. The History of the Trinity, which is the historical and temporal presence, action and manifestion of the Trinity, showing also the intrinsic integration between Christology and Pneumatology
3. The Church in the History of Jesus Christ, where the Church finds its identity, being and mission within the historical, temporal and eschatological presence, action and manifestation of Jesus Christ
4. The Church in the History of the Holy Spirit, where the Church finds its identity, being and mission within the historical, temporal and eschatological presence, action and manifestation of the Holy Spirit
In view of the foregoing presentation of Zizioulas’s and Moltmann’s trinitarian ecclesiology, we shall make some comparative and general assessment of their positions and comment more generally on trinitarian ecclesiology as an approach to ecclesiology. The obvious common ground between them and for all trinitarian ecclesiology is that the Holy Trinity, and hence the Persons of the Trinity, especially the Son and the Spirit, are fundamental to the construction of such an ecclesiology. The strength of this has been covered in our section, “Why Trinitarian Ecclesiology”. Therefore the points of contrast between the two positions are more significant for us.
In spite of the fact that these are both trinitarian ecclesiologies, the basic premises from which they start, the method of development and the results of their approaches are vastly dissimilar. Moltmann develops a new theological concept in his idea of the history of the Trinity and of the Persons of the Trinity from his analysis and reconstruction and extrapolation of the concept of promise and of the future in the Bible. On this basis he puts the cross of Christ at its centre and points out the the Trinity, and not Christ alone, was present and active at the cross. This is the centre even for the things of God that lies in the future. Within this context and framework he sets the nature and mission of the Church. This is therefore a construction and project from biblical concepts. To the extent that one accepts his analysis and construction, his is a biblically based theology. Zizioulas emphasises the concept of Person, drawing mainly from the Cappadocian fathers and Eastern Orthodox tradition, and develops it into an explanation of the Trinity and of the Church. The Trinity and the Church are relationally and ontologically related on the basis of personhood. To the extent that it draws from the Greek fathers, who develop their concept of personhood through a synthesis of biblical and Greek philosophical concepts, it can be said to be a more philosophical approach. The concept of the Church so developed is fundamentally ontological, in contrast to the much more phenomenological treatment of Moltmann.
One common ground for special mention is that, for all the differences that exists in the two approaches, they both affirm the Nicene Creed. It can be said tht Zizioulas;s approach emphasises the vital connection between the Persons of the Trinity and the Church that is made of human persons united with God throught Christ. Moltmann’s approach emphasises the cross of Christ and the historicity of God within which man and the Church find their being and mission. This therefore rather suggests that the two highly contrasting trinitarian ecclesiology may be complementary and compatible on the basis of the Creed. In fact I believe that there is a very significant corelation between the two on the basis of the biblical covenants. This later, however, must be as subject for another occasion.
A hugh and crucial area that we have no space to go into within this article is the enormous implications of these trinitarian ecclesiology for Church life and mission at the level of daily life and ministry of the Church in the in the concrete daily realities of this world in the here and now. We have suggested through our mention of Boff that church polity is a major area on which it will have impact. Indeed, I believe all aspects of Church life and mission – the vertical relationship with God or the horizontal aspects of its inner life and organisation and its relationship with the outside world in terms of the nature of its witness and ministry are all affected by the outcome of such ecclesiology.