How do you get to the hermeneutics of ecclesiology?

Practice, practice, practice.

Yes, it's a joke, but beneath the humor is truth. I've been looking for method in systematic theology, and where better to find it than where it's being done?

I started off looking at dogmatic/systematic theologians and their doctrines of the church as part of larger theological constructions. That only tells you where the doctrine of the church fits, and what it means in light of everything ideologically prior to it. Ecclesiology that resembles the doctrine of God in any number of ways, or that resembles anthropology in a select few. Practical ecclesiologies based on the marks of prior dogmatic commitment, polemically so in the Reformation and Counter-reformation cases. The doctrine of the church is inevitably one of the later doctrines, one of those higher up the edifice, dependent upon the foundations we have built below it for its position and shape. We cut it to fit. But a large part of that perception is the fact that we don't see it going on; we see the edifice and have to look for the workmanship. To get an idea of the process is often a dissertation-length project, even for small pieces of the process and limited elements of the edifice. The hermeneutics simply are not on display. The material underlying the finished product and its stages is often only as visible as an iceberg -- what the author acknowledges is so much smaller than the formative mass bearing it up. The post-facto appearance of its construction is not the way in which it was actually built, and the pieces in their places are intentionally worked together so that their origins are obscured by the work of art itself.

I looked at the Second Vatican Council, one massive ecclesiology project in and of itself. Definitely done in a way that is accessible as a process, but only partially and only after the fact. A process of doctrinal updating undertaken within the Roman Catholic Church, conceived as an attempt at self-improvement (and in Pope John's eyes, survival). Expansive, for a council, considering that the curial proposals were overturned by the body of bishops present, many sectors of which took the opportunity to exert influence quite possibly unprecedented in that church's history. A council at which the "separated brethren" were represented, and whose representatives were heard in ways clearly unprecedented. A council at which laity were present, if not necessarily heard. And yet a council at which contribution remained remarkably closed, and formative discussion still more so, considering the sixth of the world's population represented by its polity. Still, more open to analysis and the possibility of seeing practical hermeneutics than any finished and univocal work. Its impressive collection of documents is backed by a still more impressive collection of developmental stages in the proposals and drafts. (In languages I can't read yet, most of them -- my Latin will never be that good.) Which are in turn backed by a documentary history of mammoth proportions, no matter how summarized in the CIC. Sources, stages and products galore, a multitude of synchronic representations and diachronic displays. And yet all closed. Closed in contribution and participation, quickly closed off from responses, even today closed off from further development in that direction. There is certainly the eminent possibility of a study of the development of ecclesiological doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, but for whom, or for what? It is an anomaly in history, an open door in an empty hallway, sealed off after the church walked out and away from it. Understand that I mean this in terms of the utility of Vatican II as representative of a hermeneutical process in any ongoing sense, as a Protestant who remembers Luther's dying hope in conciliarism. The RCC learned much from Vatican II that shaped who they are now in ways that make the Catholicism of today profoundly different from the Catholicism of prior centuries. However that church reaches behind the council to find and recover its past selves, it does so with the hands of a post-conciliar church. It cannot unlearn those lessons, both positive and negative. But if doctrinal change happens again in the Roman Catholic Church, I find it terribly unlikely that Vatican II will be the model.

So, what then? Where does an open-source geek go for functional, accessible, reusable hermeneutics and method in the development of theology?

At the moment, the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Commission. Ecumenism in a very broad oikos. From the beginning, the question of church unity has been constitutive, but since Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, there has been real motion toward an explicit consensus ecclesiology. And that motion happens slowly, it happens with the consultation of 349 member churches and as many scholars as they care to bring to bear, it happens in public with open access to the documents, and it happens with ongoing feedback. I know it's always dominated by certain interests over others, and I don't claim that it works perfectly or that it produces ideal theology, but for observable hermeneutics of theological material and the construction of doctrinal statements, it seems hard to beat. And the statements, studies, and documents it does produce and solicit are generally of excellent quality for understanding this multiplicitous reality we call Christian theology, and how it reacts to world issues. Right now (for ongoing values of right now stretching back to the 90s), the process toward an ecumenical ecclesiology is represented in the study The Nature and Mission of the Church, and its parallel sets of documents that stretch from the prior stage, The Nature and Purpose of the Church. It's a messy process, and the effort to neaten it looks to largely be expended with respect to organizing statements out of material, and publishing collections of the material -- not toward making the contributory process neater and more streamlined for greater efficiency. I've studied efficient ecclesial processes, and efficient systems of theology, and I prefer the messy ones where you can see what is going on. So, at the moment, that's where I am, studying Faith and Order documentary history alongside my Barth work.


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