Redefining Communion of the Saints
By Jordan Villanueva, Professor at Howard Payne University
I have been reading John Webster, the late great Anglican theologian for my final PhD seminar on ecclesiology. In my reading of Webster, my own understanding of the Church has been reformed to the point that I wanted to share it with our Pastor’s Common community and hope that it would be a blessing to them and help as well all consider the beauty that can be found only in the Church. Enjoy!
Webster’s starting point for ecclesiology intriguingly begins with the perfection of God. I always assumed that ecclesiology would begin with ontology, and yet Webster’s ecclesial springboard completely revolutionized the way I began to consider God’s Church. Webster redefines the ecclesiological starting point of God’s perfection by articulating that while we in the West generally think of God’s moral perfection, what he really is describing is God’s perfection via His aseity, that is His repleteness. It is when we come to this understanding of God’s completeness without any need for anything or anyone else, that it should create a greater appreciation for what has been deemed God’s second movement towards creation, by first being willing to create, and then in turn, relating to His creation.
Webster’s ecclesiological methodology leads him to describe the Church as, “relation-in-distinction”. In other words, Webster argues that our ecclesiological journey should begin by first understanding the grace and love that is demonstrated by a God who was completely perfect in and of Himself, and yet chose to not only create us, but also to be in relation to us which required the death of God the Son. This starting premise according to Webster would reshape the way we think through the study of the Church, by recasting our understanding of ecclesiology in light of its relation to the Creator. This concept of being a God-centric church sounds obvious, but when contrasted with the man-centric attractional model of church in the West, it becomes clear that somewhere along the way, we veered off course.
This variation in ecclesiology reinterprets what we mean when we speak of the communion of the saints. Generally, when we consider the communion of the saints, it is in reference to the way we relate to each other. However, with this new understanding, we reformulate our understanding that the communion of the saints has more to say about the Church’s communion with its Creator than it does with our relation to one another. This unique perspective also reshapes our concept of the ecclesiological notion of the “perseverance of the saints” by refashioning it to describe God’s own perseverance to relate to us.
While I am only at the beginning of this seminar, I thought it might be a blessing to share what I have only recently come to realize with my peers. This new framework has the capacity to rectify everything from refocusing our mission to redefining our metrics for success as they relate to the church. In a time when it seems that everyone is trying to reverse the current trends in church attendance, I believe it is helpful to first begin with a readjustment of our theological paradigm rather than to start with cheap gimmicks on how to boost attendance. My prayer is that as we continue to address the future of the church, we would be encouraged to start with our philosophical understanding of it so that we might be better suited to lead the church into the future.
 Webster, John. “On Evangelical Ecclesiology”, Ecclesiology 1, 1 (2004): 9-35.
*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common