Monday, 25 October 2010

William J. Abraham on the Church

William J. Abraham, ‘I Believe in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’, in Christopher Seitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity: The Future for a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2001), 177-87.

Abraham begins with four competing images Christians have of the church – a country club (a nice place to visit), a Noah’s ark (a place of escape), a waterbed (a therapeutic community), and a loose confederation of states (with various laws, principles, customs, ethnic makeup, etc.). Noting the significance of images for the church – not least in Scripture – he comments that ‘a crucial issue here is where we locate the images of the church in the bigger picture’ (178). He also hopes that images will help correct our tendency to think of the church ‘in abstract and utterly unrealistic terms’ (178).

He then unfolds his essay in three sections:

1. The Church and the Kingdom of God

While the church is not the rule of God, ‘it is surely intimately connected to the rule of God’ (179). Abraham sees the Holy Spirit as the clue to understanding the relationship between the church and the kingdom. The Holy Spirit brought the church into existence – in time and space.

‘Pentecost was not just an ecclesiastical seminar where the penny dropped about Jesus and his relation to God. It was not just a special representation of grace in the early community that emanates from Jesus. It was a datable, memorable event in history. It was a decisive new encounter with God in the action of the Holy Spirit that was a milestone in the history of the cosmos’ (180-81).

And, ‘where the Holy Spirit reigns or rules, there God rules, there is the kingdom of God... the creation of a new community, the community of the Holy Spirit’ (181). Such a community will celebrate the lordship of Jesus Christ.

In summary:

‘Jesus actualized the kingdom in his life and ministry; the kingdom continues in the mighty acts of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost; one of the mighty acts is the arrival of the church; the mighty act of forming the church was carried out not apart from but through the apostles in the earthy, contingent realities of the first century’ (182).

2. One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church

This is not so much a definition as a confession, ‘an attempt to describe four crucial aspects of a living historical reality’:

Holy, in that it is ‘set apart, called out to be different to serve the purposes of God’; catholic, in that ‘it operates according to the sense and judgment of the whole and is not parochial or partial in its commitments’; apostolic, in that ‘it stems from the apostles... shares the faith of the apostles and carries out their missionary work’; one, in that ‘there is one people that has descended in succession from the apostles’ (183).

Abraham says he is reaching here ‘for the idea of a historical people with definite institutional continuity and history from one generation to the next’ (183), referring to a ‘concrete historical body, not some platonic ideal’ (184 – he seems to have in mind here the so-called ‘invisible church’).

3. Back to the Future and the Many Images of the Church

The New Testament images – of the body of Christ, the vine, the city, the royal priesthood, the light of the world – ‘like the normative adjectives in the creed’, may also ‘be read as veiled promises’ (186), even as they provide ‘a glimpse of the true greatness God has in store for the church today’ (187).

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