After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity
by Miroslav Volf
Eerdmans, 314 pages, $28
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian Protestant, is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. The present book, translated from the German original, is an outgrowth of his Habilitationsschrift, directed by Jürgen Moltmann at the University of Tübingen. In the opening chapters Volf enters into a dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger as a representative of Catholicism and with John Zizioulas as a representative of Orthodoxy. He tries to show how the ecclesiologies of these two authors are linked with their trinitarian theology—Western in the case of Ratzinger and Eastern in the case of Zizioulas. As the work continues, the author partially relinquishes the dialogue form and concentrates on developing a “free church” position that contrasts with the “episcopal” ecclesiologies of his two dialogue partners.
Under the rubric of free churches Volf includes a variety of denominations derived from the Reformation, including Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Pentecostals. He uses as his point of departure for free church ecclesiology the first Baptist, John Smyth, but he disavows Smyth’s non-trinitarian and individualist orientations. Seeking to offset the tendencies toward Christomonism and individualism in Protestant ecclesiology, he advocates a strongly trinitarian vision of the Church that seeks to do justice to both person and community.
The presentation and critique of Ratzinger and Zizioulas, though it takes up a hundred pages, is perhaps the least interesting feature of the book. Because of constrictions of space the presentations are inevitably fragmentary, and the criticisms, mounted from the author’s own perspective, will not convince readers who have difficulty with that perspective. In any case these particular authors, brilliant as they may be, do not exhaust the doctrinal possibilities of their respective communions.
The more engaging aspect of the book is its positive proposal. The author’s free-church synthesis is original, though indebted in varying measures to Paul, Luther, Käsemann, and Pannenberg as well as to contemporary sociologists such as Niklas Luhmann, Franz-Xaver Kaufmann, Peter Berger, and Rodney Stark.
In these substantive chapters the episcopal models of ecclesiology endorsed by Ratzinger and Zizioulas are made to serve as a foil against which Volf projects the merits of his free-church theory. Whereas the Catholic and Orthodox theologians accept a hierarchical form of polity, he proposes a democratic and egalitarian style of organization. Whereas they acknowledge certain structures as being divinely instituted and unalterable, he prefers a charismatic society in which all institutions are provisional. Whereas they favor an organic model in which individual Christians are taken up into the “whole Christ,” he adheres to an interpersonal or social model in which all the members are dynamically related to one another and to the Lord. Whereas they insist on the necessity of communion with the universal Church, he holds that the Church is essentially local. Contending that Christ is present in every congregation that gathers in his name, he denies the reality of any universal Church existing above or behind the local churches. Most fundamentally, Volf’s ecclesiology is marked by a futurist rather than a realized eschatology.
This futurist eschatology may be illustrated by Volf’s treatment of catholicity. Whenever the Scriptures speak of the Church as the fullness of Christ, as the Bride, and as the Temple, he prefers to understand these terms as applying to the glorious future Church. The una sancta, Volf believes, will not exist until Christ returns in glory to establish his definitive kingdom. For the present, then, churches are catholic to the extent that they anticipate, in a provisional and fragmentary way, the eventual gathering of the full people of God. It is not necessary for local churches to be in actual communion with one another, still less with a Petrine church as the center of catholic unity. It suffices that the local churches be open without distinction to all who confess Christ and that they seek communion with all other churches. For a particular church to isolate itself or claim catholicity in an exclusive way is to offend against catholicity. Volf seems to regard the Orthodox, and perhaps the Catholics also, as being guilty of such exclusivity.
Volf’s futurist ecclesiology stands in some tension with apostolicity, although he is far from rejecting this traditional attribute of the Church. The Christian revelation, he insists, is already given in its completeness and is passed on through historically mediated apostolic scriptures. Even though the churches have no infallible organ to interpret the message, the power of the Spirit enables them to grasp and preach the word of God with confidence. To be a Christian one must profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; one must be baptized and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The churches must hold fast to the apostolic preaching. In this limited sense, says Volf, “it is true that ‘there is no church without correct doctrine.’“
Although Volf sees ministry as indispensable for mediating the grace of word and sacrament, he denies that any ministerial office is essential. He explicitly sets himself against the teaching of Ignatius of Antioch on the necessity of bishops, presbyters, and deacons for the very existence of the Church. Church office for him is a humanly instituted means for the local church to govern itself, but the election and installation of officeholders, he believes, is more than a merely human occurrence; it should be accompanied by the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
As the title and subtitle make evident, Volf wants to ground his ecclesiology in a proper understanding of the Trinity. Catholics and Orthodox theologians, he remarks, understand the Trinity in a hierarchical manner, giving primacy to the Father and making the other two persons unilaterally dependent on the Father according to the order of their procession. This theory, in his judgment, serves to undergird the hierarchical ecclesiologies that Volf criticizes in his discussions of Ratzinger and Zizioulas. Following in the footsteps of his mentor Moltmann, Volf proposes a “perichoretic” model of the Trinity in which the three divine persons are reciprocally interdependent. He rejects the classical identification of the three divine persons with their relations of origin on the ground that this identification would preclude any retroactivity of the Son and the Spirit on the Father. The persons, he maintains, have a personal existence really distinct from, and prior to, their relationality.
This review would not be the place to undertake a full critique of Moltmann’s trinitarian theology as taken up by Volf. But I may indicate some misgivings. I would be inclined to question whether Scripture gives any hint of the “retroactive” influence of the Son and the Spirit on the Father. I find it hard to see how the “social” model, as here developed, escapes the pitfall of tritheism. The theory seems difficult to reconcile with the homoousion of Nicea and the teaching of several other councils. Although the term perichoresis has a legitimate theological usage, it does not warrant the conclusions Volf draws from it.
Volf maintains that his nonhierarchical ecclesiology, based on a nonhierarchical doctrine of the Trinity, is culturally appropriate and therefore facilitates the transmission of Christian faith in the contemporary situation. The free churches, he contends, are successful in marketing themselves, whereas clergy—controlled churches are in danger of collapse in societies such as our own. This thesis deserves further examination on the part of sociologists of religion. It seems to run up against the received opinion that the most adaptive churches are declining and that relatively conservative churches are growing. However that may be, Volf would surely agree that the task of the Church is not to satisfy the tastes of religious consumers but to testify to the “whole counsel of God” revealed in Jesus Christ.
All in all, Volf gives us much to think about. He is exceptionally well informed about the matters he discusses. His proposals are consistent and thoroughly thought through. His free-church ecclesiology, ecumenical in inspiration and intention, deserves broad ecumenical attention. This reviewer found particular value in Volf’s theology of charisms and in his observations on the need to activate an all too passive laity.
From a Roman Catholic point of view, I am inclined to say that this book accurately describes a promising reality within present-day Christianity. Local churches that follow Volf’s principles do indeed “reflect something of the eschatological communion of the entire people of God with the triune God.” But is such an anticipatory ecclesiality sufficient? Does there exist on earth, since Easter and Pentecost, a church founded upon the apostles, with Jesus Christ as its cornerstone—a church that embodies, in a real though imperfect manner, the new life brought into the world by the Incarnate Son of God? If the true Church of Jesus Christ subsists anywhere within history, every style of Christianity that lives apart from it suffers from a serious deficiency.
In short, this volume raises in acute form the issue of Christian eschatology. Volf finds that Zizioulas falls into an excessively realized eschatology—a criticism that has also been voiced from a Catholic point of view. But does not Volf go to the opposite extreme? What is the correct balance between the “already” and the “not yet”?
Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University.