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Jesus and the Church, by Paul Avis

12 March 2021

Stephen Spencer asks whether missiology now trumps ecclesiology

THE veteran ecclesiologist Paul Avis is the author of a range of accessible and wide-ranging studies of Anglican ecclesiology which have established themselves as indispensable reference points for understanding the nature of the Church within worldwide Anglicanism.

Books such as Anglicanism and the Christian Church (1989, 2002), In Search of Authority (2014) and The Vocation of Anglicanism (2016) are an impressive response to Stephen Sykes’s famous challenge, in The Integrity of Anglicanism of 1978, that Anglican theologians should no longer hide behind the naïve claim that Anglicanism has no special doctrines of its own, but should spell out the inherent and distinctive theology within this branch of the Christian Church. Avis has responded in significant ways to this challenge, and Anglican ecclesiology is hugely indebted to him.

Many in his position might now decide that this was enough and it was time to hang up his or her pen, as it were. Not Avis. This volume represents the first part of a multi-volume project on the theological foundations of the Christian Church.

With impressive ambition and energy, Avis is now embarking on a great undertaking and widening the scope of his scholarly investigations, from what has been mainly an exploration of the ecclesiology of the Reformation and modern eras, back to the sources and character of the Church as a whole, which in this instance means an engagement with the writings of the New Testament as well as some recent theology from Roman Catholic and Protestant sources. Using a phrase from F. D. Maurice, his concern is to dig for the foundations of the Church as a whole.

The purpose of this first volume is to explore in what ways the Church is rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, undoubtedly a key question. As Avis puts it, when one looks at the history of the Church over 20 centuries, with “the emergence of its power structures, hierarchies and bureaucracies, the fact of its divisions and bloodshed, its sins, crimes and mundane human failings — we may well exclaim, ‘What has all that to do with Jesus of Nazareth?’”

Avis explores whether Jesus founded, foresaw, or intended the Church, as was assumed in the past, or, if not (as he finds, using historical-critical study of scripture), what Jesus did about preparing his community of disciples to face the future. Also he asks how recent Protestant, RC, and Anglican theologians who accept such historical-critical methods themselves make a connection between the two.

To answer these questions, the first half of the book looks at the New Testament evidence, beginning with what we know of Jesus’s mission, then at how it speaks of the Church in the words “ekklesia” and “koinonia”, and then at a range of images used of the Church in different epistles, such as body of Christ, people of God, and royal priesthood. The second half presents a series of informative portraits of the ecclesiological thinking of recent theologians, from Friedrich Schleiermacher to Wolfhart Pannenberg on the Protestant side, Alfred Loisy to Leonardo Boff and Walter Kasper on the Roman Catholic side, and F. J. A. Hort and Charles Gore to Michael Ramsey on the Anglican side.

Throughout, Avis is concerned to evaluate the connections they make between Jesus and the Church, the “fundamental building blocks of the Christian faith”. It is important to register that no Orthodox theologians are examined, but these will appear in later volumes, especially when Avis explores liturgy and sacrament.

At the end of the book, he gathers together his findings, and suggests that it is the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which is the foundation of the Church, connecting Jesus of Nazareth with the Church of the first and subsequent centuries, while the eucharist provides the ongoing expression of that link.

Avis’s book is timely, enriching, and a good read. As the institutional Church faces profound challenges to its authority, challenges arising from child-abuse scandals and a diminishing of its corporate life in the Covid pandemic and lockdowns, it is right to go back to fundamentals and gain renewed understanding of where the Church’s authority comes from.

But some may argue that Avis is giving the Church too central a place in the drama of salvation; for Jesus did not found an institution (as he has shown), but commissioned the disciples for mission in several key passages in the New Testament, and the life of the Church which grew out of that mission can be seen as a human, pragmatic, and evolving response to this, often a vehicle for the Holy Spirit, but sometimes not.

The cover of the book is of an evocative painting by Roger Wagner of a river flowing out of a rocky mountain. It recalls Psalm 46.4. Avis links the rock with Christ and the river with the Church. Some will want to argue that the river is not the Church, but the mission of God, which has a breadth and spontaneity of life more like a movement of people than a structured institution, as identified in Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission.

It will be fascinating to see how Avis develops his argument in subsequent volumes in response to this and other reflections generated by this important book.

The Revd Dr Stephen Spencer is Director for Theological Education at the Anglican Communion Office.


Jesus and the Church: The foundation of the Church in the New Testament and modern theology
Paul Avis
T & T Clark £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.10

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