Ecclesiology usually now refers to the theological study of the Christian Church. The word was an English neologism of the later 1830s, however, and within a few years it was defined as the science of the building and decoration of church buildings; it may still be used in this sense.
In its theological sense, ecclesiology deals with the origins of Christianity, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its polity, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership. Since different ecclesiologies give shape to very different institutions, the word may also refer to a particular church or denomination’s character, self-described or otherwise – hence phrases such as Roman Catholic ecclesiology, Lutheran ecclesiology, and ecumenical ecclesiology.
The roots of the word ecclesiology come from the Greek ἐκκλησίᾱ, ekklēsiā (Latin ecclesia) meaning "congregation, church";notes 1 and -λογία, -logia, meaning "words", "knowledge", or "logic", a combining term used in the names of sciences or bodies of knowledge.
We mean, then, by Ecclesialogy, a science which may treat of the proper construction and operations of the Church, or Communion, or Society of Christians; and which may regard men as they are members of that society, whether members of the Christian Church in the widest acceptation of the term, or members of some branch or communion of that Church, located in some separate kingdom, and governed according to its internal forms of constitution and discipline.4
...as a general organ of Ecclesiology; that peculiar branch of science to which it seems scarcely too much to say, that this very magazine gave first its being and its name.5
The Ecclesiologist was first published in October 1841 and dealt with the study of the building and decoration of churches. It particularly encouraged the restoration of Anglican churches back to their supposed Gothic splendour and it was at the centre of the wave of Victorian restoration that spread across England and Wales in the second half of the 19th century. Its successor Ecclesiology Today is still, as of 2011, being published by The Ecclesiological Society (successor to the CCS, now a registered charity).6
The situation regarding the etymology has been summed up by Alister McGrath: "'Ecclesiology' is a term that has changed its meaning in recent theology. Formerly the science of the building and decoration of churches, promoted by the Cambridge Camden Society, the Ecclesiological Society and the journal The Ecclesiologist, ecclesiology now stands for the study of the nature of the Christian church."7
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- Who is the Church? Is it a visible or earthly corporation or a unified, visible society—a "church" in the sense of a specific denomination or institution, for instance? Or is it the body of all believing Christians (see invisible church) regardless of their denominational differences and disunity? What is the relationship between living Christians and departed Christians (the "cloud of witnesses") -- do they (those on Earth and those in Heaven) constitute together the Church?
- What is the relationship between a believer and the Church? That is, what is the role of corporate worship in the spiritual lives of believers? Is it in fact necessary? Can salvation be found outside of formal membership in a given faith community, and what constitutes "membership"? (Baptism? Formal acceptance of a creed? Regular participation?)
- What is the authority of the Church? Who gets to interpret the doctrines of the Church? Is the organizational structure itself, either in a single corporate body, or generally within the range of formal church structures, an independent vehicle of revelation or of God's grace? Or is the Church's authority instead dependent on and derivative of a separate and prior divine revelation external to the organization, with individual institutions being "the Church" only to the extent that they teach this message? For example, is the Bible a written part of a wider revelation entrusted to the Church as faith community, and therefore to be interpreted within that context? Or is the Bible the revelation itself, and the Church is to be defined as a group of people who claim adherence to it?
- What does the Church do? What are the sacraments, divine ordinances, and liturgies, in the context of the Church, and are they part of the Church's mission to preach the Gospel? What is the comparative emphasis and relationship between worship service, spiritual formation, and mission, and is the Church's role to create disciples of Christ or some other function? Is the Eucharist the defining element of the rest of the sacramental system and the Church itself, or is it secondary to the act of preaching? Is the Church to be understood as the vehicle for salvation, or the salvific presence in the world, or as a community of those already "saved?"
- How should the Church be governed? What was the mission and authority of the Apostles, and is this handed down through the sacraments today? What are the proper methods of choosing clergy such as bishops and priests, and what is their role within the context of the Church? Is an ordained clergy necessary? Who are the leaders of a church? Must there be a policy-making board of "leaders" within a church and what are the qualifications for this position, and by what process do these members become official, ordained "leaders"? Must leaders and clergy be "ordained," and is this possible only by those who have been ordained by others?
- What are the roles of 'spiritual gifts' in the life of the church?
- How does the Church's New Covenant relate to the covenants expressed in scripture with God's chosen people, the Jewish people?
- What is the ultimate destiny of the Church in Christian eschatology?
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Roman Catholic ecclesiology today has a plurality of models and views, as with all Roman Catholic Theology since the acceptance of scholarly Biblical criticism that began in the early to mid 20th century. This shift is most clearly marked by the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. Avery Robert Cardinal Dulles, S.J. contributed greatly to the use of models in understanding ecclesiology. In his work Models of the Church, he defines five basic models of Church that have been prevalent throughout the history of the Catholic Church. These include models of the Church as institution, as mystical communion, as sacrament, as herald, and as servant.8
The ecclesiological model of Church as an Institution holds that the Catholic Church alone is the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", and is the only Church of divine and apostolic origin. This view of the Church is dogmatically defined Catholic doctrine, and is therefore de fide. In this view, the Catholic Church— composed of all baptized, professing Catholics, both clergy and laity— is the unified, visible society founded by Christ himself, and its hierarchy derives its spiritual authority through the centuries, via apostolic succession of its bishops, most especially through the bishop of Rome (the Pope) whose successorship comes from St. Peter the Apostle, whom Christ gave "the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven". Thus, the Popes, in the Catholic view, have a God-ordained universal jurisdiction over the whole Church on earth. The Catholic Church is considered Christ's mystical body, and the universal sacrament of salvation, whereby Christ enables men to receive sanctifying grace.
The model of Church as Mystical Communion draws on two major Biblical images, the first of the "Mystical Body of Christ" (as developed in Paul's Epistles) and the second of the "People of God." This ecclesiological model draws upon sociology and articulations of two types of social relationships: a formally organized or structured society (Gesellschaft) and an informal or interpersonal community (Gemeinschaft). The Roman Catholic theologian Arnold Rademacher maintained that the Church in its inner core is community (Gemeinschaft) and in its outer core society (Gesellschaft). Here, the interpersonal aspect of the Church is given primacy and that the structured Church is the result of a real community of believers. Similarly, Yves Congar argued that the ultimate reality of the Church is a fellowship of persons. This ecclesiology opens itself to ecumenism and was the prevailing model used by the Second Vatican Council (itself considered by Roman Catholics an ecumenical council). The Council, using this model, recognized in its document Lumen Gentium that the Body of Christ subsists in a visible society governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure.
From the Orthodox perspective, the Church is one, even though She is manifested in many places. Orthodox ecclesiology operates with a plurality in unity and a unity in plurality. For Orthodoxy there is no ‘either / or’ between the one and the many. No attempt is made, or should be made, to subordinate the many to the one (the Roman Catholic model), nor the one to the many (the Protestant model). It is both canonically and theologically correct to speak of the Church and the churches, and vice versa.
There is disagreement between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople on the question of separation between ecclesiological and theological primacy and separation of the different ecclesiological levels:
- Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church
- First without Equals. A Response to the Text on Primacy of the Moscow Patriarchate, by Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, Metropolitan of Bursa
Martin Luther argued that because the Catholic Church had "lost sight of the doctrine of grace", it had "lost its claim to be considered as the authentic Christian church." ; this argument was open to the counter-criticism from Catholics that he was thus guilty of schism and the heresy of Donatism, and in both cases therefore opposing central teachings of the early Church and most especially the Church father St. Augustine of Hippo.9 It also challenged the Catholic doctrine that the Catholic Church was indefectible and infallible in its dogmatic teachings.
There is no single "Radical Reformation Ecclesiology". A variety of views is expressed among the various "Radical Reformation" participants.
- They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call.10
This was in direct contrast to the hierarchical, sacramental ecclesiology that characterised the incumbent Roman Catholic tradition as well as the new Lutheran and other prominent Protestant movements of the Reformation.
Some other Radical Reformation ecclesiology holds that "the true church [is] in heaven, and no institution of any kind on earth merit[s] the name 'church of God.'"9
- In the Greco-Roman world, ecclesia was used to refer to a lawful assembly, or a called legislative body. As early as Pythagoras, the word took on the additional meaning of a community with shared beliefs.1 This is the meaning taken in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), and later adopted by the Christian community to refer to the assembly of believers.2
- Diogenes Laertius, 8.41 (available online, retrieved 22 May 2008).
- F. Bauer, W. Danker, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, third ed., (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 2000), ἐκκλησία.
- White, James F. (1979). The Cambridge Movement: the ecclesiologists and the Gothic revival (revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 48–9.
- Anon. (1837). "Ecclesialogy". The British Critic Quarterly Theological Review and Ecclesiastical Record (London: J.G. and F. Rivington) XXII (41): 218–248.
- "Preface". The Ecclesiologist (Cambridge Camden Society) IV (1): 2. January 1845.
- "Church Architecture, Church furnishings, Church liturgy - Homepage". The Ecclesiological Society. Retrieved 2011-10-04.
- McGrath, Alister E. (1999). "Ecclesiology". The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 127.
- Cardinal Dulles, Avery (2002). Models of the Church. New York: Image Book, Random House Inc. p. contents. ISBN 0-385-13368-5.
- McGrath, Alister. E. (1998). Historical Theology, An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. p.200.
- George, Timothy (1988). Theology of the Reformers. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press. p. 285.
- Flanagan, Donal, ed. The Meaning of the Church: Papers of the Maynooth Union Summer School, 1965. Dublin, Ire.: Gill and Son, 1966. N.B.: Mostly concerns the Roman Catholic Church's own ecclesiology, but also includes a lengthy chapter on the Reformed/Presbyterian standpoint, "The Church in Protestant Theology".
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- A primer on Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesiology from an Orthodox perspective
- Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop during the First Three Centuries by the Professor Metropolitan of Pergamus and Chairman of the Athens Academy John Zizioulas