An Analysis of Avery Dulles’ Approach to Ecclesiology

Topics: Christianity, Christian Church, Christian theology Pages: 23 (8108 words) Published: October 7, 2010

Cardinal Avery Dulles is considered to be one of the most influential and most able Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. He tried to widen present-day ecclesiological conceptions by employing the method of models, as developed by the physical and social sciences, in defining the nature of the church.

The aim of the current paper is to explore Avery Dulles’ approach to ecclesiology, as developed in his seminal book, Models of The Church, and to see whether the method he used or some specific aspect of his ecclesiological synthesis could be used to construct and enrich an Adventist ecclesiology.

The paper will start by introducing the basic methodological assumption of Avery Dulles’ typological approach. This will be followed by a brief exposition and assessment of his five models of the Church upon which it will be possible to pose a more general question regarding the advantages and limitations of the usage of models in ecclesiological discourse.

The method of models

Avery Dulles starts with the premise that at the heart of the Church one finds mystery. The term mystery, applied to the Church, signifies many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself. Like other supernatural mysteries, the Church is known by a kind of connaturality (as Thomas Aquinas and the classical theologians called it). We cannot fully objectify the Church because we are involved in it; we know it through a kind of intersubjectivity. Furthermore, the Church pertains to the mystery of Christ; Christ is carrying out in the Church his plan of redemption. He is dynamically at work in the Church through his Spirit.[1]

The mysterious character of the Church has important implications for methodology. It rules out the possibility of proceeding from clear and univocal concepts, or from definitions in the usual sense of the word. The concepts abstracted from the realities we observe in the objective world around us are not applicable, at least directly, to the mystery of man’s communion with God.[2]

Some would therefore conclude that ecclesiology must be apophatic; that we can have only a theologia negativa of the Church, affirming not what it is but only what it is not. In a certain sense this may be conceded. In some respects we shall in the end have to accept a reverent silence about the Church, or for that matter about any theological reality.

Avery Dulles, however, warned that we should not fall into the negative phase prematurely, until we have exhausted the possibilities of the positive. At this point, he introduces the advantages of typological thinking in theological discourse, which subsequently became a dominant feature of his entire ecclesiological approach.[3]

The cardinal recommends that among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images and its cognate realities, such as symbols, types, models, and paradigms – tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day. He believes that a proper use of models can enhance theological heuristic function, elicit greater emotional response and loyalty involving totus homo, facilitate transformation and inspire further innovative ecclesiological reflections.[4]

A model, he maintains, represents an ‘organizing image’ which gives a particular emphasis, enabling one to notice and interpret certain aspects of experience. It is an ‘imagined mental construct invented to account for observed phenomena’ and is used to ‘develop a theory which in some sense explains the phenomena.’ The main functions of a model, according to Dulles, are explanatory and exploratory.[5] Exploring five models

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