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Catholicity and Eschatology

In his book, After Our Likeness, Miroslav Volf lays out perhaps the most rigorous and well-articulated vision for an ecumenical Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever yet encountered.  In his discussion of the catholicity of the church, he makes a couple of helpful observations.  He notes first of all that “the church is catholic because the fullness of salvation is realized within it.”  What makes the church catholic is the fact that she embodies the fullness of God’s redemption in the world.  However, it is important to qualify this definition on the basis of the eschatological nature of salvation.  Catholicity, like “all other fundamental soteriological and ecclesiological statements in the New Testament can be understood properly only within a comprehensive eschatological framework.”  Thus, our understanding of catholicity must be understood in light of our understanding of the eschatological redemption of God, of the nature of the new creation which is God’s future for the world. 

Thus, Volf defines catholicity as “the ecclesial dimension of the eschatological fullness of salvation for the entirety of created reality.”  Thus, for a church to be catholic, it must bear within itself the fullness of salvation as appropriate to the eschatological state of the church in the world.  Given that redemption is not consummated yet, catholicity is always a partial and incomplete reality in the life of the church.  “If the Spirit of God is present in the church only as the firstfruits of the still outstanding new creation, then each church can be only partially catholic.”  So, then there is no such thing as a perfect or totalized realization of the church’s catholicity within history.  Rather “within history, each church is catholic insofar as it always reflects its full eschatological catholicity historically only in a broken fashion.  This is why no church can claim full catholicity for itself.” (pp. 266-268)


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:


    this is excellent! What part of the burgeoning catholic church is he (what confession or tradition)?

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Bobby Grow wrote:

    My guess is “Orthodox”.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Volf is a Free Church theologian, having baptist and pentecostal roots. I believe he now attends an Anglican church, though he continues to hold that episcopacy is not constitutive of the ecclesiality of the church.

    His book includes extensive engagment with Ratzinger’s and Zizioulas’ ecclesiologies. In my book it is the most substantial ecclesiology to be written by a protestant in some time. And it is certainly the best Free Church ecclesiology to be written in many, many years.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben George wrote:

    Is this what the Nicene fathers meant by “catholic”? Is this what anyone but Free Church types mean by “catholic”?

    It seems like simple re-definition of inconvenient terms. “That may be what it means FOR YOU, but FOR ME it means this.”

    (BTW: I can dig that the entirety of the New Testament must be looked at through an eschatological lens.)

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:52 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I think it actually is what pretty much everyone means, or at least it is faithful to the church’s tradition, Ben. The question is what it means for the church to participate in the ecclesial dimension of the fullness of salvation. What does that “ecclesial dimension” entail? That is where I think we start to get very different answers. At a formal level I think Volf’s definition is a very servicable one.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  6. Anonymous wrote:


    First, this sounds awesome. Putting catholicity and eschatology together seems eminently appropriate and helpful.

    Ever since a buddy of mine became interested in the Catholic Church, many of our conversations have seemed to revolve around the concept of authority. How would Volf deal with this subject? How would his take on ecclesiology affect ideas of church governance?

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    For Volf, “office” does not belong to the esse of the church. The church, for its well-being and ongoing life needs authority, but how individual congregations organize themselves and structure their lives is not a static or superimposed reality that belongs to the essence of the church.

    Authority, for him resides within the entire people of God in a congregation within which ordination and structure flow. For Volf, and for the free church tradition as a whole it is the local gathering of believers that is the primary unity of ecclesial reality, and as such these gatherings bear within themselves canonical authority and responsibility.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Nick wrote:

    Thanks for pointing out the lack of “office” in the Church’s esse. That seems quite helpful to me.

    However, I’m afraid that I don’t really understand the “free church tradition” at this point. What do you mean by the local gathering being the “primary unity of ecclesial reality”. It is primary in chronology of course, but in matters of determining truth? Would local church structure still take precedent over private interpretation?

    Would, then, something like the Vincentian canon look far too broad (looking past the primary unity of the local) from the free church vantage point, or would it seem eminently appropriate given the look to universality and, thereby, to eschatological fullness?

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  9. Ben George wrote:

    It would seem to me that the Vincentian canon, from a free church perspective, would not be too broad but rather too specific. I don’t see how they could at all accept it, seeing as how it seems to implicitly support the idea of an authoritative office (by supporting the Fathers, who obviously were not themselves free-church.)

    Of course, one can always simply argue the definitions of the words.

    Halden, I carefully re-read the quote, and though I like parts of it, I’m not sure that the definition even works at a formal level, if we include Volf’s idea that no church can claim catholicity prior the eschaton. It seems to throw everything up into the air, indeed, out of orbit: a definition like that seems designed to remove the import of the debate for our own life choices–and surely that can’t be right, given that we’re speaking about ecclesiology? The assembly in which and with whom I worship here now?

    Volf’s own ecclesial choice speaks to this rarification: he’s an Anglican? Why? Why be a member of an ecclesia to whom one does not doctrinally defer in regards to ecclesiology? If one’s doctrinal feet don’t touch the ecclesial ground on which one stands, what can it all mean?

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    My only concern is that many times using the qualifier “eschatological” means: do basically whatever is convenient and when Christ returns, we’ll figure it out then. Thas is to say, in many such discussions, one can replace the word “eschatological” with “nominal” and come closer to the actual meaning of the writer. If we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” then it does not suffice to shirk from the very practical aspects of catholicity on the grounds that they are “eschatological” realities. I’m not making any direct accusations against Volf here, but what I’ve outlined is a very common rhetorical move.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    “Authority, for him resides within the entire people of God in a congregation within which ordination and structure flow. For Volf, and for the free church tradition as a whole it is the local gathering of believers that is the primary unity of ecclesial reality, and as such these gatherings bear within themselves canonical authority and responsibility.”

    This is a result of accepting various arbitrary Protestant theological moves. It is in fact not faithful to the theological tradition of the Church, East or West, in any meaningful sense.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Nick wrote:


    Do you think that the equating of eschatological with nominal is limited when it’s recognized that Jesus was the culmination of the eschatological and that uniting to him is uniting to it?

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:


    If I am understanding you correctly, I agree with what you are saying. I just think that “eschatological” is misconstrued as “intractable” or “too complicated to think about” or “not worth practical consideration” far too often. Yes, virtually every aspect of the Christian story must be understood eschatologically, but that eschatological horizon is often far too distant for my taste, “for the kingdom of heaven is nigh.”

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    “This is a result of accepting various arbitrary Protestant theological moves. It is in fact not faithful to the theological tradition of the Church, East or West, in any meaningful sense.”

    This seems nothing more than an assertion that would need a lot of substantiation from biblical and patristic sources. Everrett Fergusson’s article in The Free Church and the Early Church on the practice of ordination in patristic sources lends definite credibility to an approach in line with the free church tradition. Likewise Calvin’s discussion of Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church in his Institutes raises a lot of significant objections to to the way in which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions construe the sacrament of orders and apostolic succession. The issue is not as monological or simplistic as you make it out to be.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:20 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Ben, Volf is critical not only of episcopal traditions but also of his own free church tradition. He argues against early free church folks that episcopacy can be a viable way of ordering the church. He only denies that it is the only viable way of doing so.

    Likewise he does not claim that no church can claim catholicity, just that no church can claim the fullness of catholicity. I think this shouldn’t be a disputed point. Even the Lumen Gentium recognizes that due to the divsion of Christians that the church’s catholicity isn’t realized in its fullness in history.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    My point is that it is Volf’s position, or rather your characterization of it in the passage I quoted, is monological and simplistic. Saying that “authority… resides within the entire people of God in a congregation” really says very little at all. While there is certain a “sensus fidelium” that belongs to the Church as a whole and is a fundamental aspect of the authority of the Church, it is misleading to suggest that the “[local] gatherings [of believers] bear within themselves canonical authority and responsibility.” I’m not saying it’s completely at odds with the truth, but that there is a clear (and arbitrary) suppression of apostolicity and the episcopate that is present in the earliest Christian sources. One only has to consider the various practical controversies that the Church has faced throughout the years to see that for functional congregationalism, which is basically how I understand Volf’s position, the rubber never really meets the road. What about artificial contraception, the ordination of women, abortion, or any sort of difficult moral theology in general. The state of non-episcopal Protestant moral theology bears witness to this. It has no coherence on many if not most of these issues, and for that reason, it is difficult to see how it could possibly have any authority.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    I guess having been part of a congregation that has dealt with the matters you mention very thoroughly as a community seeking to submit itself to Scripture leads me to question your assertion that such coherence is impossible. Honestly, between protestant and catholic parishes I see very little difference in terms of how many congregations are willing to slide into liberalism against the historic Christian faith.

    As for rubber meeting the road I don’t know where this can happen except in the local congregation. Simply having a magisterium off in Rome to propound positions on these issues certainly doesn’t equal rubber meeting the road in terms of actual practice in the visible church. I can think immediately of the Catholic parish a few blocks from my house where several eucharistic ministers are living together out of wedlock with the full knowledge of the priest, or another parish here in town that is a regular participant in every year’s gay pride parade. If that is “coherence” on these issues, I fail to see it.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  18. Hill wrote:

    I don’t mean to suggest that coherence is impossible within a congregation. My point is that your congregation and the congregation next door, while both ascribing to a free church ecclesiology, may very well teach the opposite from yours. So while your pastor may teach authoritative to you and the rest of your congregation, given the voluntarist nature of such church practices in general, it is no surprise as anyone who disagreed would have likely gone elsewhere. The lack of authority results in your congregation being unable to speak with authority to the congregation next door, as fellow Christians. Since authority, from their point of view, resides in their own congregation, a congregation already made up by free association of people who feel similarly on issue X or Y or Z.

    Simply pointing out the fact that Christians of all stripes fail to live up to the commandments of Scripture and the Church proves nothing. Do you really think the Catholic teaching office is ambiguous or incoherent on the subjects I mention? They are one of the few public ecclesial bodies to speak with authority on them. The rubber meets the road because when the Catholic parishioners you mentioned engage in the behavior they are engaging in, they are very clearly in error in the eyes of a Church that comprises over a billion people, and that you could point to such an example so clearly is evidence of the real authority that the Catholic teaching office possesses. I could show you a protestant church in which all of the behaviors you mentioned would be in keeping with what is taught in that congregation. If I were talking with a protestant and he advocated a woman’s right to choose, I would have literally no idea if he were in keeping or at odds with the supposed “authority” that inheres within his congregation, and even if I did know, it would mean nothing.

    Authority is too easy to speak about as simply an idea or a feature of the church. Where authority is important is when it comes to telling people they are wrong.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I guess it seems to me that a teaching office that is unable to ensure that the churchs in communion with it actually live lives of obedience and submission to that authority doesn’t seem to offer anything other than a theoretical account thereof.

    I’m not trying to say that its all just a wash or that Catholic moral theology doesn’t have a lot to teach us all. Surely it does, and I respect so much about the tradition of Catholic moral theology. However, I think that to say that the authority exercised by the Catholic church is somehow more effective in ensuring catholicity or fatihful Christian practice is simply false. Perhaps this is more an American Catholic problem, but the fact is that none of these priests or parishoners are ever going to be in any trouble with the authorities of the church in all likelihood. So, on a theoretical level you have authority, in the sense that we know that the Catholic heirarchy teaches certain things. But Catholic parishes are pretty much free to believe and practice what they want and in the event that church discipline is undertaken, it’s pretty easy to find a liberal Catholic church where someone will give you the Eucharist.

    In other words, I see the authority and unity of the Catholic church, at least in America to really only exist on a formal or theoretical level. As such I don’t think it provides “the answer”.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    I see what you are saying, but I think the locus of authority and the means by which that conformity to that authority is insured can be separated, and that it is very useful to do so. I don’t deny that heterodox theology and liturgical practices are taught in many Catholic parishes (of course the same is true among Protestants). The church is grievously wounded today because of this. However, the authority and unity which you perceive as formal and theoretical (it is both, among other things) is a precondition to being able to address the problems you mention. I think you should be careful about generalizing from the situations you have encountered. Believe me, I have come to despair over similar situations, but we have lived in a time of great confusion, especially for American Catholicism, and there is every reason to believe that it is passing away before our eyes. I assure you that there are Catholic parishes where the teaching of the Magisterium is taken seriously, just as I admit that there are many parishes like the ones you have described. The most important point, however, is that there exists a body which teaches authoritatively (and truthfully, even in the eyes of many non-Catholics) to these parishioners, and for that reason, repentance and reconciliation becomes possible. The latitudinarianism of American Catholicism in the second half of the 20th century is reaping what it has sown: having abandoned the authoritative teaching of the Church through out history for private discernment, it has itself been unable to teach with any authority, and a vast swath of young Catholics the world over are rediscovering the riches of orthodoxy, riches which have been essentially preserved for them intact, in spite of the fact that they may have been brought up in parishes utterly beyond the pale of catholic teaching. There will always be heretical theology and immorality construed as morality, at least this side of the eschaton, but the teaching authority embodied in the Magisterium safeguards the truth against the whims of secular history and personal sin in a way that congregationalism cannot.

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  21. Freder1ck wrote:

    Halden makes a great point here, one that jives with what Balthasar said about the Second Vatican Council in his book, The Moment of Christian Witness. I posted some quotes over at Cahiers Peguy, but I’m not linking them because I don’t want to wait to see this post moderated…

    Christians, especially Catholics, need to return to the root of the word authority – that which helps us grow. Thus, the value of authority is not to issue anathemas, excommunications, etc, and otherwise force people to adhere with threats of hell, etc. No. Authority presupposes the free will of people to adhere to Christ in the Church.

    Thus, St. Paul rightly says that haeresis (choice) is a good thing because through it those who are approved stand out. The implication, it seems to me, is that they stand out who follow another and not the measure of their own ideas and choices.

    So I wouldn’t say that the authority and unity of the Catholic Church are merely theoretical; instead, I would say that they exist wherever free Christians recognize the ones who are commissioned and sent by Christ (those who hear you, hear me).

    If you really want to verify if the unity and authority of the Catholic Church exist only in theory or in reality also, the best way is to attend daily Mass (because participation is free and not mandated!!!!!) and then chat with some parishioners afterward – there are other places as well, and what I would say is one should look for the Portico of Solomon or at least the Portal of the Mystery of Hope…

    Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  22. Frederick, I like how you emphasize the importance of freedom in relation to divine authority, and I agree, authority must not be reduced to who has the power to punish, threaten, force. Authority is the power of love, which is gentle yet persistent and inviolable.
    My concern, however, is that here and in our earlier exchange, I sense you wanting to insist that we ‘recognize’ the authority of bishops as vicars, representatives of Christ (‘commissioned and sent’ as you put it here). Here is where I cannot follow you. You seemed deeply troubled by my earlier criticism of my own bishop. Yet as I see it, such criticism is essential for love to be free of coercion. We must not submit our faith to subtle invocations of humility and respect for authority when love is either distorted or denied. Many faithful Catholics have absented themselves from the daily Mass (to refer to your example above) because they have had their love ‘coerced’ from them or worse (survivors of clergy sexual abuse are invariably told by their clergy abusers that they are loved!), and their refusal of the sacraments is a sign of their insistence that love must be free! If the church has, through its representatives (and most of these abusive priests and their bishop-protectors are still considered to be representatives), bound up, enchained, and even sent to hell the hearts of the faithful, it will only be when these voices are allowed to speak openly, clearly and publicly to the church–(and not as in private, e.g. Pope Benedict’s recent conversation with U.S. victims–it would have been remarkable had he allowed this conversation to go on in public, in the church–then I would have been moved!) –only then that the free will of the people will be honored.
    So, to return to the discussion of ecclesiology, it seems to me that true catholicity can only be found when the crucified victims of the church’s own betrayals are recognized and given freedom within the church–and not merely by the many alternative avenues obviously available in a free democratic society–but within the church, to stand up to false authority, false love. All other construals of catholicity, authority, etc. etc, it seems to me, are merely theoretical at best, condemnable avoidance at worst.
    The irony, it seems to me, is that when confronting the history of the church’s betrayals, it is often the most vociferous critics of the representatives of Christ , who are often charged as guilty of haeresis who have the greatest hope in, love for, and faithfulness to Christ’s eschatological authority.

    Well, this comment may be off topic, I know, and if so, I trust Halden to let me know.

    Friday, April 18, 2008 at 7:36 am | Permalink
  23. Freder1ck wrote:

    Saint Egregious,

    Thank you for your response: My concern, however, is that here and in our earlier exchange, I sense you wanting to insist that we ‘recognize’ the authority of bishops as vicars, representatives of Christ (’commissioned and sent’ as you put it here). Here is where I cannot follow you.

    I don’t insist. I announce. I invite. I passionately entreat. In this I follow Christ in those who have been given to me as authorities in communion with my archbishop, who may be better or worse than yours. And that’s it. Recognition, like freedom itself, is not coerced but organic. You either ‘see the form’ or don’t. Let those with eyes to see and ears to hear recognize and listen. If Halden is looking for vulnerability, here it is. Alas, the combox reduces all truth to words and ideas…

    Friday, April 18, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  24. Actually, Frederick, your rhetorical gesture puts you and the ecclesial hierarchy in a position of absolute invulnerability. You claim to have the form, the Christ, the wholeness of the gospel to ‘announce’, and to ‘invite’ others, who are presumably bereft of the form, to follow. It is a one way street and you and your vicars lead the way! The stark alternative to either ‘see the form or don’t is not a very subtle form of ecclesial intimidation, regardless of how charitable or vulnerable you may feel when you say it. In fact, the rhetorical gesture of humility used by the hierarchy with one hand, while the other swats away the systemic critiques of abuse of power is precisely the wall of silence that has been built and lovingly maintained for far too long. That the laity are excluded in ecclesial courts trying cases of clergy sexual abuse (by design of the current Pope) is evidence of this invulnerability.
    That’s the reality on the ground, not just an idea or a word–the voices of the victims of the church authorities is shut out or reduced to private pastoral ‘counsel’ the very place such abuse has taken place in the first place! What most victims of clergy abuse want is not invitations to follow Christ from the leadership, but an acknowledgement that the leaders, including those who have covered up and obfuscated, have themselves strayed from Christ and need to follow the vulnerable, battered, broken form of Christ that stands before them in the faces and voices of the survivors of clergy abuse. Let them put down their pious defenses and risk hearing the truth from those who have been shut out from, and denied the church’s grace.

    Friday, April 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  25. Nick wrote:


    Just saw this quotation from John Behr and thought it belonged under this topic.

    “Perhaps we should not think, as we are wont to do, of the unity of the one Church that we desire as something we once had but have since lost. Perhaps we should see it rather as a unity towards which we are always moving as we sojourn in the changing circumstances of this world, seeking a citizenship that ultimately lies in the heavens (Philippians 3:20)—just as Christ is always “the Coming One,” even when present and being asked a question in the Gospels (see Matthew 11:3).”

    The context is Behr’s attempt to make sense of the Orthodox situation in America.

    Friday, April 18, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

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