Catholic, Concrete, & Critical

Tony SigHalden recently noted a post by R. O. Flyer about an article by Nicholas Healy critiquing the so-called “New Ecclesiology” of Hauerwas, the RO crew, and the Catholic crew (not that they are so different). Now I haven’t read the article so I am going on Flyer’s take on things. Perhaps I am a card carrying member of the – as Tony Jones puts it – “Hauerwasian Mafia;” and perhaps I’m reading through a Milbank essay as we speak, but I wanted to disagree with their patently Reformed critique that these ecclesiologies lack the ability be be judged by God’s Word and that they are in fact “reactionary.” I wanted to also turn the tables and say that it is the idealism of a “spiritual” ecclesiology that is in need of concrete judgement.

First off, the accusation that these ecclesiologies are “reactionary” needs to be let go right away. All theology, be it ecclesiology or whatever, is done by people; that is to say, theological discourse takes place in history. Being historical we neither come to the task objectively or untraditioned by our own circumstances and upbringing. Perhaps this seems an elementary observation but it begs the question: “Is there any ecclesiology that is not situated ‘for’ and/or ‘against’ the prevailing tendencies of the day?” Obviously not, as the Augustine example makes clear (funny to put in a story that doesn’t much build up ones case). Indeed it is perhaps a the unconcrete ecclesiology that is idealistic, looking to the sky for the “Spirit to act.” Yes, it is the height of irony that Hauerwas et. al. speak “idealistically” of the Church and proceed to judge the Church for remaining in sin but are being accused of being unavailable for such judgement. How might we expect the Spirit to judge the Church but by its own preachers? And it is a categorical misunderstanding of the RO critique to say that the Church must be “saved” from evil “modernity” or the “world.” It is exactly the message that the Church has compromised itself with modernity and the world’s secularity and is in need of a “return” (ie-judgement) to theology, to being itself and proclaiming the Gospel on its own terms and not those of “the world.”

To refuse to speak of the Church idealistically is to refuse to be an escatological Church, who is “already” perfected by the act of Christ. By not living up to this accomplished ‘ideal,’ the Church continually places itself under judgement and because of its concreteness can be sanctified. It is the individualized radically free ecclesiology of Reformed Protestantism that resists judgement and who in the face of struggle inevitably chooses schism over reconcilitation, who in the name of “necessary reformation” chooses a shrunken orthodoxy over a generous catholicity thereby rendering such ‘reformation’ null as the ‘reforming’ group is continually multiplied and pluriform.



  1. First of all, I would like to thank you Anthony, for engaging with my post. I also want to acknowledge the fact that we both live in the Twin Cities! It would be nice to meet up some time and talk about this issue further.

    Now, to a response. First, I should point out that there is, in fact, a great deal of difference between Hauerwas and Milbank and perhaps even a greater difference between these two and Roman Catholic and Orthodox advocates of something like a “communion ecclesiology.” I point that out because I do not think Healy does justice, in this particular article, to the important differences within each camp. If post-Vatican II communion ecclesiology is “reacting” against anything it is not primarily “modernity,” rather the concern is usually with a tendency toward institutionalism within the Catholic church itself. Further, Hauerwas and Milbank are by no means the same–and I would certainly not conflate the two on matters of ecclesiology. The reason why I raise these points at the outset is because I noticed that your first paragraph seems to suggest deep similarities and interests. Perhaps you were just following me on this, but I think it is important to remember, nonetheless.

    I hope to respond to this post more fully at a later time, but for now I just want to ask you a couple of follow up questions.

    1) You refer to my critique (and Healy’s I presume) as “patently Reformed.” Could you please indicate what made you draw this from my post? I wonder about this because you pit your response against what you call an “individualized radically free ecclesiology of Reformed Protestantism” as if to suggest that is my position or Healy’s position.

    2) Perhaps I am confused on what makes the critique particularly “idealist” or “spiritual” Could you clarify what you mean by these terms?

    As far as the reactionary character of the so-called “new ecclesiologies,” this is my term not Healy’s, though this is the impression I got from his article. By reactionary I don’t mean to suggest that the church is somehow ahistorical or that it should not respond to society. Out of all thinkers I would highlight Milbank as a prime example of a reactionary thinker and how this plays into a new sort of apologetic for the church. For Milbank, a particular form of Christianity, epitomized in a certain brand of the analogia entis coupled with a hierarchical ontology somehow overcomes atheistic nihilism’s “ontology of violence.” It seems to me that Milbank’s entire goal is to propose a sort of apologetic account of Christianity that persuades atheistic postmoderns of the “peace” that lies at the heart of Christian ontology versus the “violence” at the heart of postmodernity. In this framework Christianity is primarily seen as an alternative ideology that resists the corrosive effects of modernity and liberalism. The problem is that neither Christianity nor the church saves–Christ saves! This is not a particularly reformed position to take. The Catholic church would have no problem affirming this statement.


  2. Thanks Flyer for visiting the site. I am all about catching a beer and discussing theology. I am about to run off for the day and will not have time to respond but you ask some fair questions. Full disclosure, I am quite an amateur when it comes to theology, and I can muster up some discussion but I will not be able to speak authoritatively on the theology of even Hauerwas and Milbank, the two of the list that I have read the most of. So go easy on me 🙂

    Until then, peace


  3. Flyer,

    re: The ‘sameness’ of the varied ecclesiologies
    – I wrote a bit hastily. You’re absolutely right, they are not necessarily similar ecclesiologies. But, I should say, neither are they necessarily incompatible if “Communion Ecclesiology” is seen as a sort of “basic” ecclesiological foundation.

    re: The question of “Reformed Critique”
    – I assumed as much for a couple reasons. Obviously one is that Healy is Reformed. Another is that the all pervasive theme of “The Word” over and above the Church and World judging seems to me to be a particularly Barthinian emphasis. Not, mind you, that I don’t agree on the utter freedom of the Word; but the emphasis led me to think, “Barth” mutatis mundasis, Reformed.

    As to the matter of “idealist” or “spiritual,” these are my own words. It seemed that Healy (& you?) took it to be a fault to conceive of the Church as having a rather generous portion of grace and as being noticeably different than “the world” as it ends up leading to “idealogical distortion” and an unavailability for judgement. I took this to mean that an “idealist” picture of the Church as articulated by the “New” and “Communion” ecclesiologies, according to Healy, is what he was reacting to.

    To my mind, if we are not to conceive of the Church in estchatological terms as already in some way ‘perfected’ then all is left is a “spiritual” perfection all but remote to the Church as it is, living and breathing.

    Similarly, my point about “individualized radically free” is a response of sorts to the seemingly strong emphasis on judgement and reform. When “The Church” is constantly asked to “reform” apart from the “realized eschtology” of the ecclesiologies Healy was critiquing all we get is the 24,000+ denominations of Protestantism. Eager to reform and judge seems to mean eager to insist then leave.

    Finally, I disagree about Milbank. Any post-foundationalist theology (and we all should be getting round to it I hope) is essentially apologetic, not just Milbanks. Once the “narratives” of the world are multiplied and unjustified, it is the narrative force of Christianity alone that can present the Gospel, not a foundationalist use of the Bible, or reason, or whatever. In the book “Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition” I sense that there can be more overlap than is usually thought between the two camps. I especially am thinking in the case of this topic of the essay by Hans Boersma “Being Reconciled: Atonement as the Ecclesio-Christological Practice of Forgiveness in John Milbank” who sees Christ’s atonement as a dominant theme is Milbanks ecclesiology.

    I welcome any more discussion, though I fear my theological mind much too inadequate to converse with a St. Thomas student and theologian.


  4. “The problem is that neither Christianity nor the church saves–Christ saves! This is not a particularly reformed position to take. The Catholic church would have no problem affirming this statement.”

    Don’t be so quick. The Catholic might have a problem with such a strong dichotomy between Christ and the Church. The Church (however defined) is the “Body of Christ,” after all, and their unity is stronger than most of us Protestants let on. Gerhard Lofhink’s excellent work “Does God Need the Church?” is helpful on this: the point being, in both Testaments, God seeks the redemption of the world through a particular people. You are correct that “Jesus saves,” as dangerous as that is to bumper-sticker theology, but it is also true that Jesus does not save apart from the preaching, witness, and sacramental practice of the Church.


  5. Adhunt:

    Would it change your reading at all to know that Healy is a Roman Catholic, a Thomist — though I’m sure he’d qualify what that means — who reads Barth through Thomas (and not the other way around), and that he was educated in the very school of those he is critiques (he did his Ph.D. at Yale, if I remember correctly)?


  6. Thanks for your response, Anthony. As Nate helpfully points out, Healy is a Roman Catholic himself and his engagement with “communion ecclesiology” and the so-called “new ecclesiology” is by no means unsympathetic.

    I should also point out that Healy is not so much concerned with debunking an eschatological conception of the church, but an over-realized eschatology coupled with a strong emphasis on inhabiting the church’s practices. Nate actually makes a similar critique of Stanley Hauerwas in his book Christ, History and Apocalyptic. The issue for me comes down to a tendency in these thinkers to collapse Christ and the Spirit into the church. When this occurs, the historical singularity of Christ and therefore God’s freedom risks becoming overruled by the church and its practices.


    I really don’t think that Roman Catholicism necessarily resists the (important) distinction between Christ and the church. If anything, in Roman Catholicism the emphasis is on the deep relation between the Eucharist and Christ’s ongoing presence, not specifically the church body itself.


  7. Nate,

    With all these theologians visiting the site I feel like I oughta spruce myself up a bit.

    Thank you for pointing out that Healy is Roman Catholic. It seems as if I put my foot in my mouth.

    Oh, and, btw, I really enjoyed your essay in Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition on the Eucharist. That is, if you’re the same Nate Kerr.

    RO Flyer,

    Good to know. Thanks again.


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