Franz Leenhardt on Protestant Ecclesiology

Franz Leenhardt [*], Two Biblical Faiths, 90.
The protestant is inclined to apply to ecclesiological matters the text in which the apostle Paul compares the old covenant to the earthly Jerusalem and the new to the heavenly Jerusalem. The protestant’s predilection is for the heavenly Jerusalem. The church is a reality so inward and so secret that it cannot but be invisible; God alone knows who properly belongs to it. The people of God, as a people, is certainly a visible and earthly reality; but the life that it now lives in the flesh, the protestant again would say with St. Paul, it lives by faith in the Son of God; as people of God, it exists only by virtue of faith. God does not establish its foundation sin this world; nothing can guarantee its quality; it is the church only as it turns on the axis of faith. That is why for the protestant the church cannot be an institution, an objective concrete reality which abides in itself. It appears rather, hic et nunc, in the very act which makes it emerge as a reality of faith, when believers assemble to heed in faith the word of God, or when they confess their faith before the world.

Luther set the tone of protestant tendencies in ecclesiology when he discontinued the use of the word church. He chose to recognize only the word Gemeinde, that is, the community of believers, the group of viatores, of pilgrims who pass through this world with their eyes fixed on the distant horizon which has been disclosed to their faith by the promise implied in God’s word. There can be no question of any establishment in this world which would denote a yielding to the temptation to anticipate the last times, the ultimate aeon. In order to remain dependent on the promise and the promise alone, the Christian must resist the temptation to set up in the present age an organized institution in which the human will would have, at its free disposal and exercise, that which can depend only on the sovereign liberty of God.

This passage is simply remarkable for its concision as well as its depth of insight. The bit right in the middle, at the end of the first paragraph, about the church appearing / existing here and now only as an event or act – and the event or act of hearing the word and proclaiming the gospel before the world! – is superb. Then, at the end of the second paragraph we find an indictment not only of Roman Catholicism but also of much of Protestantism. For while certain strands of Roman Catholic thinking can view the church as the sort of institution that Leenhardt describes, it is certainly true that Protestants can act like the church is such a thing, even though they might not believe it. They do so every time they care more for their church building than for the poor, or more for maintaining the high musical caliber of their choir rather than for the proclamation of the gospel to those who have not heard. All of this Leenhardt gives us in a lucid, conversational style.

[*]Leenhardt was one of the interesting francophone Reformed thinkers, from the early 20th century, whose modern Reformed resurgence was parallel to but not in any way derivative of Barth, that deserve more attention.


D.R. Ward said…
Thank you for this!

It has stimulated many productive nights of theological reflection.

I think ecclesiology is one of the most important issues before us today. The Protestant Church's ecclesiology, especially as it is currently manifested in many American churches and denominations, is, I fear, hopelessly divorced from any foundation in Christ. Its ecclesiology is fundamentally static and passive (it is crucifier, not crucified); the church exists there and then, not here and now.

Church as event. Church as act. Church as die verfolgte Gemeinde. These are the thoughts that currently occupy my mind. They are at times liberating, and at at others, haunting.

For some reason, I have found myself reaching for Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison more than any other book. I think that there are important connections to be drawn between a Church that has its being in act and Bonhoeffer's concept of religionless christianity. His ecclesiology, found primarily in Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being, has also been seeming more and more relevant to me in recent days. Though, my thinking on these issues is hopelessly preliminary.

Thank you again for sharing this!

D.R., I have very similar sentiments. All the best as you continue to ponder! Keep watching the blog and I'm sure more ecclesiologically interesting stuff will come along in due course.

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