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Building Upon the One Foundation

Jesus and the Church
The Foundation of the Church in the New Testament and Modern Theology
By Paul Avis
T&T Clark. pp. 235 + xiv, $40.95

Reconciling Theology
By Paul Avis
SCM Press. pp. 260 + xiv, $48

Review by Eugene R. Schlesinger

As churches face down the related realities of decline and of the current reckoning regarding various scandals connected to unfaithfulness within and by the Church, we must ask ourselves anew what the purpose of the Church is and whether it is in fact worth all the trouble. Given the harms caused by churches, might the proper response to decline be letting nature take its course as churches go gentle into that good night? These two volumes by Paul Avis — the fruit of 40-odd years of ministry and reflection — serve as complementary responses to that question, and can be read as a pincer movement of sorts, whereby we are invited to sit at the feet of this elder statesman of Anglican ecclesiology and ecumenical theology and recover a vision of what the Church is for and what it can be again.

Jesus and the Church is concerned with foundations, digging deep into historical and biblical scholarship to find how the Church arose from the ministry of Jesus. While historical research has disallowed the naïve assumption that Jesus founded the Church in any direct fashion — Avis cites Alfred Loïsy’s observation that Jesus announced the kingdom, yet it was the Church that came, in a positive fashion, devoid of irony — we can nevertheless discern a foundational relationship between Jesus and the Church.

A survey of biblical imagery and what we might call proto-ecclesiological language, most especially the Pauline trope of being “in Christ,” leads into engagement with Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican theorizing about how we’ve moved from the historical Jesus to the Church, all of which culminates in an articulation of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Holy Spirit as the foundation of the Church.

While Jesus and the Church is intended to inaugurate a multi-volume series on the Church and its theological foundations, Reconciling Theology can also be read as an exercise in building upon that foundation, even though it is not part of the envisioned series. Given that the Church is founded upon the Paschal mystery, how are we to understand its vocation, and how are we to account for the ways it deviates from that vocation? Avis begins with a winsome commendation of what he understands by a “reconciling theology,” one that can serve a reconciling community on its way to becoming a reconciled community. A reconciling theology will be motivated by love and marked by irenicism and undefensive receptivity, not threatened by difference, but rather expecting to be enriched by it. A reconciling theology recognizes one’s fellow Christians as belonging to Christ, and therefore as those with whom one ought to be in communion. Would that such a theology characterized our churches, their theologians, and their authoritative teachers.

Reconciling Theology is marked by an ecumenical realism, one that deflates any triumphalist ecclesial chauvinism, whether in the form of exclusive claims or self-aggrandizement by way of self-effacement. Avis’s ecumenical playing field is level, yet its terrain is differentiated, as different churches face different challenges in seeking unity. Three initial chapters provide something of the state of the question in ecumenism, including engagements with the challenges posed by denominationalism, which would reduce any given church to just one option among many, and by the Catholic Church’s uneven reception of and internal strife regarding Vatican II.

These are followed by a consideration of the Church’s polity in a chapter that breathes with the spirit of Richard Hooker, both commending polity as a church’s enacted ecclesiology and commending a flexibility in local adaptations due to historical change. Not all churches need have the same polity, but neither can we regard it as something that is up for grabs, willy-nilly. This measured, generous, realistic approach exemplifies the reconciling theology Avis commends.

The next two chapters, “Unreconciled Church: Countersign of the Kingdom” and “To Heal a Wounded Church,” make up the centerpiece of the book. Here Avis’s ecumenical generosity meets a forthright refusal to acquiesce to division as he issues a striking challenge for the Church to realize that its unreconciled state is no mere inconvenience or shortcoming, but rather a contradiction of its very nature, an existential threat:

What has happened to the Christian church over 2,000 years — the progressive dismemberment of the body — does not trouble our conscience overmuch; it does not keep us awake at night; it does not make us tremble before the altar. That is an intolerable fact — theologically, spiritually and morally intolerable (126).

He further attempts to articulate an original and essential unity for the Church, which is rather difficult, as the historical evidence seems to indicate that such pristine unity never existed. Avis suggests Pentecost as a singularity at which the Church was indeed united. He suggests this as analogous to the Resurrection and the beginning of Genesis, events that are beyond mere history, even as they are the very foundations and inaugurations of histories. I think I locate the solution to the quandary in a slightly different place (with the community of the faithful reduced to one as Jesus underwent his Passion, following the suggestion of Michael Ramsey), but Avis’s proposals are generative, and have allowed me to refine my thoughts on the matter considerably. My future work on this theme will be directly better for my engagement with him.

Reconciling Theology culminates in a vision of the Church as a reconciled and reconciling community, indeed in a contemplative meditation upon reconciliation in Christ and the demands it makes upon us. It makes for stirring, inspiring reading.

As I read Jesus and the Church, I found myself frequently wishing for more evaluation from Avis. Instead, we often get summaries of figures’ views with a quick statement of whether Avis finds them persuasive, but very little by way of the evidence-weighing that leads to that conclusion. Reconciling Theology speaks with a far clearer evaluative voice, perhaps because Avis has moved from a historical to a theological register, though some of the chapters can read more like a survey of the literature than as a constructive argument per se (hence my great appreciation for the chapters on the unreconciled and wounded Church). Throughout these volumes, Avis demonstrates an impressive command of Protestant and Catholic theologies and a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of the Anglican tradition. While the nature of my work tends to have me almost exclusively engaged with Catholic theology, whenever I read Avis, I am reminded of why I am and remain an Anglican.

To return to my opening observations, Avis is particularly to be commended for his emphasis upon the Paschal mystery in both books. In these troubled days for the Church, it is more or less only the redemptive love of God in Christ that provides any cogent reason for why we should continue with the bother. Perhaps we should always have thought thus; St. Paul seems to have. But it’s far more unmistakable now. And Avis’s articulation of the Church’s foundation in the redemptive love of God in Christ provides a cogent, compelling reminder of precisely why this troubled, troubling community is worth the trouble.


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