Book Review: Models of the Church by Avery Dulles
The highly respected Catholic theologian Avery Dulles offers a very lucid book on ecclesiology in his 2002 expanded edition, Models of the Church. Scholars, students, and lay theologians alike are greatly indebted to Dulles for offering such an insightful and succinct book covering a vast array of issues regarding ecclesiastical typology.
Dulles begins by indicating that due to the mysterious character of the Church, there exists a sheer impossibility to biblically “proceeding from clear and univocal concepts” (p10) concerning a perspective structure for the Church. Thus as a method of going forward he recommends using the most popular ecclesiastical forms, or models, as means to explore and examine the varying benefits and deficits. While acknowledging the many variations Dulles proposes five overarching models: a) Institutional, b) Mystical Communion (Community or People of God), c) Sacrament, d) Herald, e) Servant. In a manner possible only by a quality scholar, Dulles works to concisely display how each model functions and operates. He does so by first giving a brief introduction and then asking the same three questions of each: a) What are the bonds of union, b) Who are the beneficiaries, c) What is the goal or purpose of the Church. Dulles does a masterful job of working to accurately answer the questions from the vantage point of the particular model being explored while continually interacting with the others as well. This is a huge service to the reader for it explains each model in greater depth than a mere isolated definition could. Plus, having constant communication with the other models Dulles prepares the reader to integrate them, which is his concluding advice.
While there is much to commend there are a few things that should be addressed. First, though Dulles acknowledges from the outset that he is working from a Roman Catholic perspective, it would be advantageous for scholarly thoroughness at points to indicate what critiques a Protestant perspective would have. But this does not truly cheapen the overall work. Secondly, Dulles’ method for displaying his ultimate recommendation of integration is weakened by the choices he makes. He suggests that one must choose a model and then work backwards, attempting to integrate the advantages of each model and attempting to eliminate as many weaknesses as possible. However, his example starts with the Servant model which he critiqued with pointing out that there is a “lack of any direct biblical foundation” (p91). While his suggestion of integration should still be taken serious it could be very beneficial to use a more appropriate example. Lastly and perhaps not really a critique but a request, is that the last section where he offers his own model of sorts should have been expanded. The Church as Community of Disciples could have used a more lengthy discussion and interaction, but the reader still has enough to work with.
Though Dulles’ work is forced to conclude that “we are therefore condemned to work with models that are inadequate to the reality to which they point,” the book is a must read for those wishing to think through what the Church is and how it should be structured. Dulles directs the reader to the most pressing issues, works through them, and cites the most important works for further research.