John Fuellenbach, SVD teaches theology at the Gregorian in Rome, has taught in the
Philippines, and lectures internationally. He is also the author of The Kingdom of God.
In the preface to his book, Fuellenbach describes his aim, “to present a vision of the church that understands itself wholly from the standpoint of the kingdom, finds its identity in the presence of the kingdom now, and sees its mission entirely in the service of the kingdom.” This aim, then, in effect, serves as Fuellenbach’s unifying thesis, although he surveys a number of different theologians’ views on ecclesiology, thereby offering the reader the ability to draw many of her own conclusions about the relationship between the Kindgom and the Church.
Fuellenbach, who writes from a Roman Catholic perspective, divides his book into two parts, “The Church in Scripture and in Vatican II” and “Models of the Church.” With Gehard Lohfink, Fuellenbach begins with Jesus’ message of the coming Kingdom. Because Jesus preached the Kingdom, this is what the church should preach. Then he goes on to ask how the church and the Kingdom are similar or different, or exactly what they have to do with each other. Fuellenbach lays out models, or metaphors, to understand this precise relationship. Much of Fuellenbach’s concern deals with how the message of the coming Kingdom should inform the church’s posture towards the world; and, then, once this posture is laid out, he looks at how various church structures reinforce or undermine this posture. Fuellenbach is clearly on the side of those who want to bring out more fully implications in Vatican II for a more laity-driven, egalitarian church structure. Two of the models that he believes capture this kind of structure the best are a Trinitarian model and the model of the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Trinitarian model brings out the communal nature of the church, and it offers a picture of unity in diversity. In envisioning the church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the charismatic nature of the church is emphasized over against a static, institutional, hierarchical one. Fuellenbach offers BCE’s as examples of these models.
In looking at the precise relationship between the church and the Kingdom, Fuellenbach asks, “is the pilgrim church the manifestation of the Kingdom in history?” or “is theKingdom of God equivalent to what the church will become in the end?” And then he answers both these questions in the negative. The “already” manifestation of the Kingdom exists both in and outside of the church, and the fullness of the Kingdom is not just the church in glory, but God’s entire creation redeemed. Therefore, God’s salvation can exist outside the church. Also, the church is provisional and not an end in itself. But in laying out the scope of God’s salvation, Fuellenbach is forced to wrestle with the church’s raison d’etre. If God can save outside the church, then why the church? One of the ways that Fuellenbach deals with this question is to describe the church as a sacrament. Because a sacrament is an efficacious sign, the church is at once a unique image of the Kingdom and a place where people can meet the Kingdom, however imperfectly this meeting takes place in the time before the eschaton.
Because so much of what Fuellenbach was doing was to wrestle with the implications of Vatican II, I sometimes felt that I was entering into an ongoing, technical debate between members of an exclusive club, one of which I was not a part. So, many points of his discussion were difficult and I didn’t always know how to access them. One of these difficulties involved this last point on the church as sacrament. Although, he presented it as a way to maintain the christocentric dimension of the church, I didn’t quite see how that worked. My sense was that the differences between God’s salvation in and out of the church were simply a matter of degree, but he presented the differences as more qualitative than quantitative. But the precise nature of these qualitative differences evaded me. At best, I understood the sacramental nature of the church as somehow giving language to the world for its experience of grace. And certainly having language for something can heighten the experience of that thing. What I did appreciate the most, however, was his ability to thoroughly depict the issues at stake. What should the dialectical relationship between the managerial work of the clergy and the charismatic work of the laity be? What is the foundation for mission if you allow that God doesn’t need the church to do his work in the world? If you can’t find that foundation are you forced to say that God doesn’t do salvific work without the practical (that is not just praying Eucharistic prayers) work of his church? So these are some of the questions I’m left with after reading Fuellenbach’s book.