Paul Avis, editor of The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiology, reflects on the notion that ecclesiologists and most theologians often have a relationship with the church that is marked by tension. He notes, “if they are believers, they are dependent on it for their spiritual life, yet are provoked to kick against it” (26). Therefore, no matter the relationship, theologians must grapple with the reality of the church, which Avis calls “one of the most challenging and creative areas of theological endeavor today” (2). This volume serves as an excellent companion for dealing with questions springing forth from the contemporary study of the church.
This Handbook provides an overview of the field of ecclesiology—defined as the “comparative, critical, and constructive discipline of reflection on the identity of the church” (7). It spans twenty-eight essays written by twenty-six contributors, marked by a diversity in church affiliation and geographical location. First, part 1 addresses Biblical Foundations, an impressive feature of this volume. The in-depth scriptural examination of this section sets it apart from other reference materials. Part 2, entitled “Resources from the Tradition,” examines major Christian ecclesiologies, while part 3 studies the contributions of major modern ecclesiologists, including Yves Congar, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Rowan Williams. Finally, part 4 examines contemporary movements in ecclesiology. Together, these essays provide a wide-ranging overview of the present state of the field of ecclesiology.
The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiologydoes not attempt to please all people, thereby avoiding the resultant watered-down theology that can come from such an approach. Instead, it addresses the particulars and speaks to the universal elements of ecclesiology (an endeavor that mirrors the local-universal dynamic of ecclesiology). In addition, the text expands the traditionally included conversation partners. For example, in a reference book such as this, one would expect the inclusion of sections on Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist ecclesiologies; and indeed, these sections are included and are excellent. What sets this volume apart is the inclusion of chapters on Methodist and Pentecostal ecclesiologies as well.
At its core, this Handbook is an expression of ecumenical ecclesiology. From the start, Avis claims ecumenism as a goal of ecclesiology. He argues, “[e]cclesiology today can only be undertaken with integrity and validity in an ecumenical context; the days of strictly confessional ecclesiologies are over” (10). At the same time, this text could have benefitted from a chapter on ecumenism and dialogue. Perhaps the intention was to infuse ecumenism throughout the volume, thereby demonstrating that ecumenism is an intimate aspect of the ecclesiological task. However, the treatment of ecclesiologies from each major Christian tradition combined with the chapters on pivotal modern ecclesiologists that belong to specific traditions—such as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, Joseph Ratzinger, and John Zizioulas—presents an understanding of ecclesiology that is more confessional than claimed in the introduction.
Part 4 addresses contemporary ecclesiological movements and trends. It is one of the strongest sections, yet also leaves the most to be desired. It highlights contemporary movements, including excellent essays on feminist ecclesiology and the interaction of social sciences with ecclesiology. This section also features examinations of Asian, African, and Latin American ecclesiologies. Michelle A. Gonzalez’s chapter, “Liberation Ecclesiologies with Special Reference to Latin America” stands out as exceptional. However, part 4 also has the most unfulfilled potential While the section could have been expanded in many ways, there are two omissions worth noting. While Avis’s introductory chapter to the volume addresses practical ecclesiology, a chapter exploring this emerging area of study would have been a welcome addition to part 4. Furthermore, there is no section on Black ecclesiologies apart from the chapter on African ecclesiologies focused on Roman Catholic ecclesiology, an omission that is felt in the volume.
Overall, The Oxford Handbook of Ecclesiologyis an excellent addition to a reference library for graduate students, scholars of religion, or ministers looking to consult major ecclesiological figures, traditions, and trends. It is valuable to both specialists within ecclesiology as well as theologians specializing in other areas of study. As with other entries in The Oxford Handbook Series, the bibliographical suggestions are excellent resources. It will not displace other similar reference books, such as Routledge Companion to the Christian Church(Mannion and Mudge, eds, 2008), or Roger Haight’s 3-volume work, Christian Community in History(Continum, 2004-2008). However, it is a valuable addition to this collection of ecclesiological reference books. Readers will be well-served by adding this book to their personal libraries or consulting it for initial research.
Annie Selak is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Boston University.
Date Of Review:
February 15, 2019
Paul Avis is a priest in the Church of England. He was Honorary Visiting Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion, Exeter University, 2008-17. He is editor-in-chief of Ecclesiology. His publications include Reshaping Ecumenical Theology: The Church Made Whole?, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (2008), and A Ministry Shaped by Mission (2005).
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