Friday, 5 November 2010

Kevin J. Vanhoozer on Evangelicalism and the Church

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘Evangelicalism and the Church: The Company of the Gospel’, in in Craig Bartholomew, Robin Parry, and Andrew West (eds.), The Futures of Evangelicalism: Issues and Prospects (Leicester: IVP, 2003), 40-99.

I had reason to return to this essay recently, and think it is a truly excellent and engaging piece of work on the church, helpfully summarising huge chunks of material already out there on the topic, but also planting seeds of its own.

Vanhoozer begins with the positives and not so positives about evangelicals and the church (40-45), before highlighting what he sees as the urgency of the moment (45-46).

The problem for a ‘mere ecclesiology’, as he sees it, is the vanishing evangelical identity (46-52). Ecclesiology has not been high on the theological agenda of evangelicals – partly because of an adherence to an invisible church and an emphasis on individual salvation. Stanley Grenz, of course, emphasised ‘community’ in his theology, though Vanhoozer wonders whether he over-emphasised piety at the expense of doctrine. Vanhoozer favours what he calls an evangelical imagination informed by the biblical narrative of creation, fall and redemption.

He proposes a ‘mere ecclesiology’ (52-55, with ‘mere’ understood as essential rather than trivial, ‘understanding the basic nature and the basic mission of the church’), going hand in hand with a mere evangelicalism – the church as the people of the gospel.

Vanhoozer then turns to the relationship between church and culture, particularly how evangelicals have accommodated to culture (55-62), and especially in the ideology of individualism (57-59).

His next major section is on ecclesiology as first theology (62-70). He begins by showing how central concepts such as ‘tradition’, ‘community’, and ‘practice’ have become, which has been influential on theological reflection on the church. And he highlights particular theologians as cases in point – Milbank, Hauerwas, Yoder, Hütter, and Grenz. As much as their work has helped push considerations of church to the top of the agenda, Vanhoozer (if I read him correctly here) is a little concerned that it’s overdone, that (for instance) ecclesiology has trumped Scripture.

Next he turns to the nature and function of the church, particularly from the perspective of the evangelical heritage (70-77). On the nature of the church (as a theological community), he says that the church is a theme of the gospel, and a result of the gospel (71-75). On the function of the church (as a missionary community), he says that the church is an embodiment of the gospel, and an agent of the gospel (75-77).

Then, under the heading of ‘the evangelical imperative’, he discusses the four traditional marks of the church – one , holy, catholic, and apostolic (77-85). He looks at them from an eschatological perspective, noting the difference between what the church is now and what the church will become, between what is already the case and what is not yet fully the case.

In his long conclusion (85-93), we get a rehearsal of his metaphor of drama to speak of the church as ‘the theatre of the gospel’.

As I say, a great essay.

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