The Boundaries, Please

Book cover
Christian Community in Historyby Roger Haight, S.J.

Continuum. 528p $34.95


Roger Haight needs little introduction to readers of America. A Jesuit for over 50 years, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and the author of several prize-winning books of theology, he now teaches at the interdenominational Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In February of this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a notification stating that his book Jesus Symbol of God contained “serious doctrinal errors” concerning such topics as Jesus’ salvific role and the nature of the Trinity. It further stated that Haight “may not teach Catholic theology” until such errors are fully corrected.

The concluding volume of Haight’s two-part work, Christian Community in History: Comparative Ecclesiology, will not be as controversial as his Christology. In the first volume, Historical Ecclesiology, he examined the church from its origins up through the Conciliarist movement of the late Middle Ages. This second volume ranges from the 16th-century Reformations to such contemporary developments as the Second Vatican Council, liberation theology and Pentecostalism.

In both books, Haight sees globalization and an increasing appreciation of religious pluralism as the context for contemporary ecclesiology. And, he says that understanding the church’s historical pluralism will help the church to deal better with its contemporary pluralism and its place in a religiously diverse world. He thus aims to develop a “historical ecclesiology” that seeks the “normative in the historical” through attentiveness to the interplay of history, sociology and theology. In particular he wishes to avoid a “theological reductionism” that would envision the church solely in an ideal, abstract manner, thereby avoiding its historical and human dimensions.

Accordingly, he contrasts an “ecclesiology from above” with an “ecclesiology from below.” The former, he holds, is ahistorical, denominational, authority-driven, doctrinal, Christocentric and sees church ministries as divinely willed and hierarchical. In contrast, his preferred “ecclesiology from below” is postmodern, ecumenical, experiential, historical, Spirit-centered and measures church ministries by their usefulness.

In Comparative Ecclesiology, Haight uses this “ascending” approach to examine various ecclesiologies that have emerged since the 16th century. His comparative method explores the historical situations that gave birth to different churches and ecclesiologies, as well as the persons and events that exemplify such ecclesiologies. He begins with the cultural, political, economic and religious conditions that helped Martin Luther’s reform spread where previous ones had failed. After highlighting the institutional and intellectual coherence of Calvin’s ecclesiology and the mediating vision of the Anglican Richard Hooker, Haight examines Tridentine Catholicism and the radical challenge posed to both Catholicism and Protestantism by various “free church” traditions.

In the Protestant Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Catholic Johann Adam Möhler, he sees the emergence of a genuinely modern ecclesiology that is historically conscious and attentive to the subjectivity of religious experience. Haight concludes with two chapters that survey 20th-century developments in Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism.

Throughout he traces the churches’ increasing awareness of the value of pluralism as “nontoxic and positive” rather than as regrettable or sinful. Ultimately, he argues, comparative ecclesiology should yield a greater appreciation for diversity not only in the Christian churches but also in other religions.

Overall, the book’s strengths are the clarity and consistency of its method, its insistence that theology must always be yoked to history and therefore sensitive to the church’s growth and development and the author’s largely evenhanded expositions of diverse ecclesiologies. These qualities make for a good textbook or reference work for graduate and advanced undergraduate classes.

Haight’s book, though, is marred by stylistic, methodological and substantial flaws. It is often poorly written, particularly in its run-on sentences, its sloppiness (e.g., “Calvin put the community before the individual functionally but also in the end also spiritually.”), and its often bureaucratic tone (e.g., “[ecclesial structures] arise to organize and canalize the inner finality of the church.”).

This volume displays, moreover, the same methodological and substantive flaws pointed out by Robert Imbelli in these pages (2/7) and by Luke Timothy Johnson in Commonweal (1/28) in their reviews of Haight’s first volume. Despite Haight’s protestations, his method tends toward a sociological and historical reductionism, in which he himself claims that “differences among the churches and their ecclesiologies are largely a product of history,” rather than of significantly different theological approaches to such matters as faith, the sacraments and ministry. Moreover, his “ecclesiology from above/below” distinction becomes a dichotomy, in which “descending” elements such as doctrine and Christocentrism are marginalized; Haight does little to suggest that these elements have much to offer contemporary ecclesiology. I propose that both Christology and ecclesiology retire this dual construct, as it has outlived its usefulness.

Most disappointing in this second volume, though, is its two-page conclusion. Haight states that his goal was not to highlight the divergences between ecclesiologies, but to “see each one as part of the one tradition of the whole church.” Even a much lengthier conclusion, he claims, would have tended toward superficiality and abstraction. These reasons, I judge, are wanting on several grounds. Yet a 1,000-page effort becomes unwieldy without such synthesis and summary. Moreover, the lack of a constructive proposal, either as a more substantial conclusion or as a third volume, leaves one hanging, waiting to see a more explicit, systematic account of Haight’s vision of contemporary ecclesiology.

Finally, the absence of a substantial conclusion means that the author fails to address the nature and the limits of the theological and ecclesiological pluralism he champions throughout the two volumes. As it stands, he speaks at length of the inevitability and the desirability of pluralism, but leaves the reader with little sense of the shape and the boundaries of a Christian pluralism or of the claims that the “one tradition of the whole church” makes upon each of the churches. How, for instance, does one reconcile markedly different understandings of the Eucharist and of ministry among, say, Orthodox and Baptists? Does Haight believe that such effort is desirable or even possible? If so, what might that unity concretely—and not abstractly—look like?

This “comparative” ecclesiology is thus more of a “consecutive” ecclesiology, content simply to present differences without much reference to their integration and mutual challenge. Absent such efforts, Haight’s pluralistic vision looks rather undiscriminating and so is largely unable to provide bearings for the church as it seeks its own unity and the world’s.


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11 years 6 months ago
I read Christopher Ruddy’s review of volume two of my Christian Community in History with some surprise (8/1). The whole two-volume work is a history, not of the church, but of ecclesiology, the understanding of the church. Thus I was pleased when he wrote of “the author’s largely evenhanded expositions of diverse ecclesiologies” and recommended it as a text and reference work for graduate and advanced undergraduate students. This was the goal of the work. The surprise came with the harsh criticism which followed, and I sought an explanation.

I have formulated a theory. I wonder whether Mr. Ruddy thinks that Volume Two of C.C.H. is the systematic theology that I promised when I indicated that the two-volume work C.C.H. was itself the first part of “a two-part ecclesiology from below which I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay.” As a theory it accounts for several things about his review: first, he seems to want a history from above, something that is at least paradoxical. In this historical ecclesiology, the transcendent dimensions of the church, especially the roles of Christ and the Spirit, appear in all the examples that are analyzed, thereby suggesting historically a normative, ecclesiological constant. Second, he asks many questions that can be answered only in a systematics. And third, his review reads as though he thinks my lack of a long conclusion means that Volume Two of C.C.H. is the end of my ecclesiology. Actually, the promised concluding systematic volume which, will address many of his questions, is under construction. It will draw out in an explicit way the transcendent dimensions that appear in the comparison of ecclesiologies among themselves and with the sources of Christian theology.

I do not know whether this theory is true, but it accounts for much if not all of the data. I think that my long sentences may be due to the early influence of Karl Rahner! In any case, if it is true, it would mean that Ruddy did not recognize the difference between the history of ecclesiology and a systematic ecclesiology, something that would subtract from the value of his judgments.

11 years 6 months ago
In his letter to the editors (8/29), Roger Haight, S.J., writes that he is working on a systematic ecclesiology that will address the kinds of theological questions raised in my review of his Christian Community in History, Vol.2: Comparative Ecclesiology (8/1). It is unfortunate that this book and its predecessor were much less clear about his intention.

Father Haight’s letter says, “the two-volume work C.C.H. [Christian Community in History] was itself the first part of a two-part ecclesiology from below that I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay.” That sentence is clear about his future plans, but it is not what he wrote in Historical Ecclesiology. His original sentence instead reads, “Historical Ecclesiology is the first part of a two-part ecclesiology from below which I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay.” Haight’s letter thus changes his definition of the “first part” of his ecclesiology from Historical Ecclesiology to the entire Christian Community in History; this shift decisively alters his meaning. Moreover, the original sentence is ambiguous about whether Comparative Ecclesiology or a projected third volume is the promised “systematic and constructive essay.” In 1,000 pages, Haight nowhere else makes clear reference to his intent to write a third, systematic volume, not even where one would most logically expect it: at the end of Comparative Ecclesiology. That book ends merely with a subjunctive, not indicative, statement, “A fitting conclusion to this work would be a more fulsome development of a constructive ecclesiology....” It is unclear why he did not simply state there or elsewhere that a third volume was in preparation.

More important, the confusing language of Haight’s letter, like that of his two volumes, flows from his flawed conception of the relationship between historical-comparative theology and systematic theology. His letter claims that my systematic concerns are inapplicable to his historical ecclesiology. Yet his historical method already contains significant systematic components. In his introduction to Historical Ecclesiology, he writes that each chapter will conclude by “formulat[ing] a set of principles or axioms or distinctions.... These are depicted as ecclesiological constants that illumine the church across history. The constructive intention is to gather a certain number of formal theological and ecclesiological principles that will be useful for understanding the church at any given time and place.” I think that such an entwining of historical and systematic theology is unavoidable and desirable. Haight, however, should be more up front about the constructive entwining already at work in his books, rather than pretend to a historical ecclesiology unencumbered by such systematic commitments.


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