Paul Zahl's (un)Ecclesiology

No one has ever awakened in the middle of the night anxious about ecclesiology per se (225).

In this, my final post on Paul Zahl’s Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life, I will focus on Zahl’s ecclesiology, or rather, his non-ecclesiology. I raise this aspect of Zahl’s thought because, at least in my view, it stands against the flow of current trends. Just as ecclesiology seems to be all the rage, we have in Paul Zahl a resounding indifference.

I have no ecclesiology. ‘Ecclesiology’ is a word that means doctrine of the church. An ‘ecclesiology’ is a teaching or concept concerning the Christian church: what it is, what it consists of, what is important in it, and how it relates to other ideas about the church. When I say, ‘I have no ecclesiology,’ I am not really saying that. I am simply saying that ‘ecclesiology’ is unimportant to me. It is low on my list of theological values (225).

Zahl offers two reasons why ecclesiology is unimportant in a theology for everyday life: 1) positively, other doctrines are more important, i.e., they keep you awake at night where ecclesiology does not, 2) negatively, ecclesiology can tend to set the church off in distinction from the world into a kind of original sin-free zone (225). For Zahl, the only proper ecclesiology, then, is a non-ecclesiology: “To have no ecclesiology is to have an ecclesiology” (226, emphasis original). That is, thinking little of the church is still a view of the church. Such a view, though, stands in sharp contrast to the proliferation of conferences now focusing on the church’s mission, what the church isn’t doing, what it has got to do, and especially, on discerning the church’s missional strategy in a post-Christendom culture. Having no ecclesiology allows the everyday Christian to focus instead on what ought to capture his or her attention, namely, the grace of God in Jesus Christ. In a theology of everyday life our focus turns to the head of the church and away from “a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived” (225). At bottom, Zahl’s ecclesiology is a reminder of where to look.

What Zahl does embrace is what he calls an “ecclesiology of suspicion” (228). This ecclesiology rejects the idea of the church as “original sin-free zone” and limits the church’s authority. For Zahl, “A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to church, irreducibly Protestant” (228). No ecclesial form holds ultimate authority. It is Christ who is over the church and the Spirit who moves it.

Having no ecclesiology is to possess a proper ecclesiology. Whatever form an emerging church takes, it cannot be dried for observation. It is a pneumatic, Spirit-led movement, always, like mercury in motion. Church is flux. A systematic theology of grace puts church in its right place. Church is at best the caboose to grace. It is its tail. Ecclesiology, on the other hand, makes church into the engine (228).

We might summarize Zahl’s ecclesiology as follows: the church as an idea is unimportant, the church stands with the world under the law and ever in need of grace, Christ and his Spirit are the authority over the church, ecclesiological form is subordinate to the experience of grace. With the proliferation of ecclesiologically focused literature, missional conferences, and networks (heck, my own church’s network is called The Ecclesia Network!), I think that Zahl’s non-ecclesiology offers a helpful perspective.

At the very least, reading Zahl on ecclesiology now has me wanting to read Emil Brunner’s The Misunderstanding of the Church.


Erik Leafblad said…
This post sold me on adding this book to list for an independent study.
Unknown said…
This is fantastic. I completely agree with Zahl's notion that a non-ecclesiology is the proper ecclesiology. Great stuff.
Darren said…
This may require some further term definitions and nuancing, which I imagine Zahl does in the book. But apart from the obvious value of "Jesus before church," my instinct is to react against this as uncritical at best, theologically dangerous at worst. Of course Zahl has an ecclesiology (as he seems to acknowledge); "non-ecclesiology" is thus a gimmick, a sort of sloganistic double-speak to accomplish a particular goal -- though it really isn't true.

What, then, may be the dangers of eschewing ecclesiology? The suggestion here seems to be that this locus may be ripped out of systematic theology without doing any harm at all. It is an appendix, a "caboose," which depends upon everything that goes before it but which in turn affects and influences no other doctrine. I find this naive and incredibly individualistic.

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