Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

BOOK REVIEW. Nicholas M. Healy – Church, World And The Christian Life, Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Kindle Edition).

Written by: on August 29, 2014

Author’s note.  The Kindle edition of the book provides “locations” rather than “pages.”  In-text citations are reflective of this.

For many, the discipline of ecclesiology is neither practical nor prophetic.  Rather, ecclesiology is understood by most to be primarily and essentially reflective, pondering the historical progression of the church in an attempt to understand it in its present (whenever that may be) form.  Matters such as the functions and forms of the church and its posture relative to culture may be examined but the adjective “practical” is not normally found anywhere near a description of  ecclesiology.  Further, it serves no easily identified prophetic (in the functional, corrective understanding of the word “prophetic”) or predictive function and as such, many Evangelicals view it as a discipline valuable only to the academy, with little real-world usefulness.  In his important work Church, World and the Christian Life, Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology, Nicholas M. Healy offers a challenging argument against this disposition and for the necessity of critical reflection on ecclesial life.  

Healy contends that, while most “horizons” of ecclesiology have not been as “helpful as [they] could be” (loc. 59), ecclesiology, if undertaken from the perspective of a “theodramatic” horizon, can be both practical and prophetic, providing essential correctives to the church as a matter of course.  Over and against “epic” or “blueprint”1 ecclesiologies, where the theologian stands on the outside, viewing the church with an almost scientific disposition, a theodramatic perspective postures the theologian squarely in the middle of the narrative, causing the ecclesiological inquiry to come to life.

A theodramatic approach allows for the different-ness of the church and others, as well as the different-ness of the various iterations of church, to be fully embraced and even celebrated!  We should be able to recognize that Christianity and world religions or non/anti-religions are unique from each other and, at the same time, embrace authentic respect for one another.  We usually do not do this very well.  The church needs to engage in dialog — fierce debate even — with entities outside of itself.  This is in fulfilling both requisite functions of the church to make disciples and fervently witness to our Lord.  Healy contends that the church can, in fact, learn important things from those outside of its purview, even things of a theological nature.  The church does not hold the monopoly position of wrong and right.  Throughout the book it is demonstrated that merely having a theoretical/spiritual understanding of righteousness has not always translated into right behavior among the “pilgrim”2 church.  “To acknowledge the need to listen and learn is to deprive Christians of the comfort and security of knowing that they have, or have access to, all the answers” (loc. 904).  This flies in the face of the church’s normal, hubristic self-view.

Historically, any meaningful reformation within the church has been predicated upon crisis or scandal.  Healy posits that a full embrace of theodramatic ecclesiology would offer a necessary corrective to this trend.  “It acknowledges the church’s sinfulness and errors, not only when it is obliged to do so by others, but by actively seeking out and bringing to light anti-Christian practices and beliefs and by proposing suitable reforms” (loc. 2429).  Most would agree that repentance for sin, however public and emotional it may be, can be viewed as somewhat suspicious when it comes only in response to being caught in some misdeed.   It seems that, if nothing more, from a purely public-relations standpoint, Healy offers a refreshing adjustment in methods.  This correction alone moves his brand of ecclesiology into the category of “practical” even if his mode of presentation is not.

Healy makes full and robust use of the English language, sparing no words even when fewer could have presented some very important matters in a more accessible manner.  His succinct presentation of the distinctions between the ecclesiological “horizons” of pluralism, inclusivism and exclusionism in chapter four is excellent.  Because of his efficiency of words in this section, these may be the most helpful three paragraphs in the entire text.  He clearly explains that for the pluralist, all religions’ aim is the same — some variant of salvation — while the exclusivist “insists that membership in the church is necessary for salvation” (Loc. 1021).  Inclusivism seeks to forge a union of the previous two while maintaining Christian superiority among world religions.  He illustrates in this brief section that, when he so chooses, he can provide a treatment of important subject matters without the density of words otherwise pervasive in the text.

One theme found throughout the pages is the idea that the church should readily and quickly recognize its sin and error, repent of them, and make progress toward meaningful change.  This is the “prophetic” in Healy’s practical-prophetic ecclesiology.  I whole-heartedly agreement with this in principle, yet find myself struggling to understand how (functionally) he proposes that individual members of the church (local) can effectively repent for the sins of the collective (catholic).  This is a central theme, warranting extensive doctrinal discussion yet I find only one, brief explanatory statement likening the church (“sufficiently self-identical” is his terminology) to ancient Israel to serve as authorization for an individual member to carry the full weight of repentance for the church, both historical and present-day.  This important book calls the church to an everyday practice of ecclesiological reflection and repentance that will offer a credible witness to the gospel of Christ.  This is important!  I would have liked to have seen more attention given to how an individual’s penitence can be effectual toward demonstrating the authentic repentance of the entire church.  That kind of discussion could provide a powerful polemic against the prevailing individualism of the western church.


1 For Healy, epic forms of ecclesiology position the theologian outside the narrative of the church, describing in the third-person.  Blueprint variants of the discipline also offer a third-person perspective but rather than telling the story of what is, they offer preferred descriptions of what the church should be, generally leaning on contrast to argue their points.

2 The church’s response to such travesties as the Pol-Pot and Hitler regimes, slavery in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are but a few examples.



About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

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