Scaffolds of the Church

Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology

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Cyril Hovorun
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke & Co.
    , July
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ecclesiology has become a central concern of contemporary systematics, and with good reason. How theologians conceive of the church has implications across theological fields. Moreover, in the wake of major ecumenical agreements, ecclesiological differences remain as defining differences between Christian traditions.

In Scaffolds of the Church: Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology, Cyril Hovorun argues that how we understand ecclesial structures is the nub at the center of these divergent ecclesiologies. If we are able to differentiate the structures that support the church’s central being as scaffolding from what makes up that being itself, he argues, we will be better able to describe the church in the ecumenical and quickly changing present.

The book is highly historical in its conception and structure. Arguing for a move beyond a “structuralist” account of the church towards a “poststructuralist” one, Hovorun sees a central part of his task as demonstrating “that the structures of the church are not universal, do change, and are not established by God” (185). The historical reach of the work is indeed impressive, although focusing on the development of ecclesial structures in the Roman empire and their later developments in the Orthodox churches.

Within the story of this development, he demonstrates how the structures that arose mirrored and developed the political offices and the imagined universe from which they came. Structural administrative divisions make the church manageable, but also provide boundaries that can create tensions. They may even lead to future divisions within the church. The necessity of making structural divisions is therefore ambivalent in a community for which “unity” belongs to its very being.

The author’s erudition can, at times, become a distraction. The focus on language and locality is important, but sections of the book are almost overwhelmed by parenthetical inclusion of original-language terms in both transliteration and original alphabets. Sometimes this is necessary for clarity, but the author could reasonably expect that the educated reader would recognize terms that have become terms of art. By attending to which terms are important enough to the argument to require definition, the author would greatly streamline the text.  Relatedly, the work’s attention to historical detail is throughgoing, even in places where it is not clear why such detail (such as the inclusion of two appendices listing every bishop of Constantinople and every bishop of Rome) are helpful to the argument or the reader.

A different kind of difficulty arises from the scope of the argument. While the historical examples focus on the experience of the Christian East, the work seeks to engage contemporary Western ecclesiology throughout its systematic consideration. This might be impossible in a study of this length. As one example, the work cites a variety of 20th-century Catholic thinkers throughout its systematic sections, including Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Yves Congar, Pope Benedict XVI, Hans Küng, and Roger Haight. It does so in an idiosyncratic way, however, for it does not engage with these authors on the central argument of the book—that differences across history and locality mean that the varying structures do not belong to the nature of the church. Rahner, in particular, has written extensively on this question. His argument—developments in history that were neither present from the beginning nor derive in a way that is logically necessary from that origin might still become irreformable (and even de iure divino) [see a number of essays in vol 14 of the Theological Investigations]—has siblings with different nuances in the work of other authors whom Hovorun cites. This is not just true of Roman Catholic authors. George Lindbeck’s work on doctrine would offer a different nuance on this question. If the author desires to introduce the voices of Western Christians to this work, some engagement with their well-known contributions to his central systematic question is in order.

However, this study is worth the consideration of any serious ecclesiologist. Its attention to the church’s history, and its specific engagement with particular structural developments in the Eastern churches are enlightening and well narrated. They also have something important to say to the wider church. The overarching question about the necessity of particular structures to the church’s unity is important—it may be the central systematic ecumenical question of the 21st century. That Hovorun’s assumptions are not those of 20th-century Catholic thinkers is neither surprising nor a problem. This study would not need to engage with Catholic thinkers to offer an important voice.

Indeed, reading this text as arising out of a particular tradition and speaking primarily to that tradition makes its strengths manifest. If different communities of Christians are to come to recognize the church in other Christian communions, then they must expect that the theological arguments that bring these communities to that conviction will be as different as the communities from which they come. Hovorun’s argument about change and diversity is rooted deeply in the particular history of Orthodox Christians. Emphasizing this heritage may show it to be an argument which can helpfully nuance theologies of the church and diversity within those communities. Reading it in this way, it also has much to offer other communities in their own considerations of the church’s unity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jakob Karl Rinderknecht is Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Cyril Hovorun is Senior Lecturer at Sankt Ignatios Academy at the Stockholm School of Theology in Sweden.



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