Church

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Ephraim Radner
Cascade Companions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $25.000.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498297097.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ephraim Radner’s recent book is given the simple, single-word title Church. Coming in well under two hundred pages, this might lead the casual observer to conclude in advance that this is an ambitious project that must, of course, fail to deliver for the simple reason that one cannot do justice to a theological, social, cultural, and historical topic as complex as the church without at least two, maybe three, volumes. This is not the weakness of Radner’s project. The weakness of Church is the idiosyncratic way that Radner approaches his project, an approach that I will discuss below. Likewise, the strength of this project is that, for an introductory text, Radner advances a surprising, constructive proposal for how to understand the church such that the patient reader is rewarded with new insights and a paradigm-shifting ecclesiology. Radner does no less than attempt a retelling of ecclesiology that challenges most ecclesiological approaches while making great strides toward an ecumenical ecclesiology that both affirms and critiques the traditions that make this field so fraught with division. He does this by arguing for a figural ecclesiology, grounded in Israel and open to the living reality of God. This last point could be said to animate the entire project: “What is God doing with the Church for the sake of humankind?” (11). 

The book begins with two chapters that make up one section under the title “The Wounds I Received in the House of My Friends.” These two chapters approach ecclesiology in a survey fashion, all the while paying attention to conflicts and differences in the history of the church. The end of these two chapters concludes with the question, “What is going on in all of this that we can and must call ‘Church’?” (51).

The third chapter restarts the ecclesiological project by asking what we mean by the word “church,” exploring linguistic challenges and scriptural accounts. At this point Radner acknowledges a key theological distinction that many ecclesiologies miss: the church is dependent, both conceptually and in actuality, on the agency of God. “Deny God and one has denied the Church,” he observes (66). In this way, the book moves beyond a theological/historical narrative, or a sociological/cultural analysis, and settles into a constructive account that can be useful as a “faithful” accounting of the church. The theological payoff here is that the “reality of God” might have a genuine impact on methodology as he sets out to do ecclesiology in a constructive mode that can provide an account of the actual realities of the multiplicity of churches. “The Church,” he writes, “is not obviously a stable object, whose aspects and facets can be definitively described in an absolute fashion” (66). The church, in a theological analysis that is faithful to the disruptive agency of God, has no ideal form, but rather exists only as actualized “‘sets’ of concrete persons and their complex locations within space and time,” which are “somehow ordered to God” (67).

If Radner does lean in an idealistic direction, it is toward a New Adam Christology that informs his account of the church as a “nation among nations” for which the “inclusion of all nations into the one source of natality itself, the Christ” is the aim and goal of election (81). Election, then, is not focused on the people elected, but rather upon the one who is elected, the Christ, the new Adam. In this way ecclesiology finds its ideal and universal form in Jesus the Messiah of Israel. And Israel is the source that Radner draws upon to pull together his figural ecclesiology.

The concluding chapters of the book build upon the theme of the nations and of election by drawing them together around the figure of Israel. Chapter 6 is titled “The Church as Israel” and, for the reader sensitized to the long history of Christian supersessionism, such a title immediately sends up warning flags. However, paying such close attention to Israel—if supersessionsim can be avoided— is necessary for an ecclesiology that would purport to be an engagement with the living God of Israel. Israel, in Radner’s account, is not an idealized people that can be bypassed as an abstract concept, or simply translated as church, without doing violence to actual Israel. Israel is a real engagement by people in time and space with their God and it is God’s actual engagement with a people. But to say that the church is Israel is not a supersessionist claim if the ontological identity of the church is not located inside itself, but rather outside itself in the person of Jesus, the new Adam. In this way, election is not a possession of any one people, but rather any people’s—any nation’s—engagement with God. Israel is, for the church, not an ontological competitor, a people sharing a space that can only be occupied by one entity. Rather, Israel is a people engaged with the same God with whom the church is engaged, and so the church finds out who it is by looking at the scriptural narrative of God’s relationship to Israel. A figural ecclesiology, Radner argues, is not formed by drawing out propositions from the biblical narrative of Israel and God, but rather by “engaging the Bible in an ongoing fashion” (124) and seeing the Church as Israel in the text. 

Radner’s figural ecclesiology makes the case that even when the church fails to live up to those defining marks that many various and fervently argued theologies of the church claim are essential, nevertheless the church is still the church in the same way that Israel never stopped being Israel even when she was far from the mark. We might say that the hurch is the church in relationship to the God of Israel, in multiple forms and modes of existence. The thing is the relationship, the calling, and the election. And here is the strength of Radner’s book. In a theological world full of church-centered ecclesiologies, he has given us something much more unsettling and undefined: a God-centered one. This is also the weakness of Radner’s book, but it is a necessary weakness. Only such an approach might begin to account for the God with whom the church believes she is engaged and, in the end, perhaps only such an approach makes sense of the disarray and disunity of the multiple voices that all lay claim to the title, “Church.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel V. Adams is Associate Professor of Theology at Kilns College in Bend, OR.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. He is the author of several volumes on ecclesiology and hermeneutics including The End of the Church (1998).

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