After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity

Written by Miroslav Volf Reviewed By David Peterson

This is one of the most stimulating books I have read in recent years. As a genuine example of evangelical systematic theology, it does more than merely arrange biblical teaching in a convenient fashion, or simply summarise and critique what great theologians have said on the theme of the church. Volf takes the further step of showing how the formulation of this doctrine is influenced by the way other key doctrines are conceived. In particular, he is concerned to show how conclusions about the doctrine of the Trinity influence one’s ecclesiology. At the same time he demonstrates how ecclesiology is profoundly influenced by perspectives on eschatology and soteriology. This whole exercise exposes the differences between Catholic, Orthodox and Free Church ecclesiologies and provides a significant challenge to all three. Read with an open mind, this book could actually achieve great things in the ecumenical sphere because it offers some radical and helpful perspectives on thorny issues that have divided Christians over the centuries. It is the inaugural publication in a new series called ‘Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age’, edited by Alan G. Padgett.

Volf, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, engages first in a critical dialogue with the Catholic and Orthodox ecclesiologies of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the metropolitan John Zizioulas. Interaction with the arguments of Ratzinger and Zizioulas continues throughout the second part of the book where Volf expounds his own ecclesiology. His purpose is to counter the tendencies towards individualism in Protestant ecclesiology and to suggest a viable understanding of the church in which person and community are given their proper due. His ultimate goal is to spell out a vision of the church as an image of the triune God.

Exploring first the question of ecclesiality (what makes the church the church). Volf rightly insists that eschatology is the key. The future of the church in God’s new creation is the mutual personal indwelling of the triune God and his glorified people (Rev. 21–22). Participation in the communion of the triune God is anticipated in the present through faith in Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of Christ is present ‘in its (sic) ecclesially constitutive activity, there is the church’. Against the Catholic view that the church is constituted in the Spirit through the sacraments and that the office of a duly consecrated bishop is essential for the ecclesiality of the local church to be established, Volf explores certain NT perspectives, with particular focus on the implications of Matthew 18:20. He comes to the interesting conclusion that ‘public confession of faith in Christ through the pluriform speaking of the word is the central constitutive mark of the church’. Sacraments can be an indispensable condition of ecclesiality only if they are a form of the confession of faith and an expression of faith. Ordained office is desirable but not necessary for ecclesiality.

The gathered congregation is the primary expression of church and denominations can only be called ‘church’ in a secondary, rather than a strictly theological sense. However, ‘the same presence of Christ through the Spirit that makes each local church “independent” of the other churches simultaneously connects them with one another’. Indeed the ‘openness’ of every church toward all other churches is ‘an indispensable condition of ecclesiality’. This is a challenging perspective that needs a better grounding in Scripture and further exploration of its practical implications.

Developing the link between soteriology and ecclesiology, Volf argues that there is no pure, ecclesially unmediated faith. Moreover, ‘it is only through life in the congregation in whose confession I participate that I discover the meaning of the confession of faith’. Nevertheless, this ecclesial activity of mediation is meaningful only if it leads one to entrust one’s life to God in faith. Faith does not require a priestly office but it is mediated through the priesthood of all believers. Yet Volf cannot escape the need for a priestly office of baptising and celebrating the eucharist. A helpful reflection on personhood in the ecclesial community forms a bridge to the chapter on Trinity and church.

Volf rightly highlights the limits of the correspondence between the trinitarian conception of God and ecclesial communion. This is important in an era when glib analogies are too often easily drawn. The correspondence is grounded in baptism in the name of the Trinity. ‘Because churches, in the power of the Holy Spirit, already form a communion with the triune God, ecclesial correspondence to the Trinity can become an object of hope and thus also a task for human beings’. However, although inter-ecclesial correspondence to the Trinity is important, ‘it can nonetheless be conceived only in analogy to the pivotal intra-ecclesial correspondence to the Trinity’. Thus, Volf continues to maintain the primacy of the local church as the anticipation on earth of the heavenly or eschatological communion with God in the new creation. At the same time, he is concerned to press the implications for communion between churches, challenging the exclusivity of Catholic, Orthodox and Free Church alike. The work finishes with chapters on structures of the church and the catholicity of the church, flowing out from the writer’s arguments about Trinity and church.

This is a complex book that will repay careful study. It is not an exhaustive treatment of the subject: there are significant gaps in the writer’s treatment of biblical material (e.g. perspectives from the OT and the Pastoral Epistles). Volf’s egalitarianism leaves him in some difficulty with regard to hierarchy and subordination in Trinity and Church and there are topics that are barely touched upon. But there is a breadth and logic to his approach that should provoke fruitful discussion and a rethinking of entrenched positions by Christians of every persuasion.

David Peterson

David Peterson
Moore Theological College,
Newtown, New South Wales, Australia