Review of The Church by Hans Küng
In the early 1960s the Roman Catholic church met to discuss its own being. The realization that the foundations established by the Council of Trent in the 16th century were no longer adequate prompted one of the most important reformulations of the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church in history. This reformulation, in fact, was so important that many of its declarations are still being worked out, as the church seeks to understand who it is in this present world. One of those involved in this Council was a theologian named Hans Küng. In his magisterial book simply named The Church, he seeks to expound on the doctrine which was at the core of what Vatican II became. Küng gives to us an outline of what it means to be the church, avoiding strict specifics while giving a broad outline within which there can, and should, be variations. It is the goal of this brief essay to discuss this book, first looking at the book as a whole, then focusing on two chapters which are of particular significance. It is rare indeed to find a book which is still “cutting edge” thirty years after being written, yet in reading The Church one realizes that the Christian Community is still needing to work out Küng’s challenge and explorations.
Küng is not wary about challenging the status quo. He is not intentional about this, nor is he being rebellious. Rather, his goal is to look at the Biblical text, examining the pertinent passages, and more importantly taking a look at the church from the perspective of the whole of the New Testament, without separating various parts. Thus, this book uses Scripture as its primary source material, at every point letting the Gospel and the Letters frame the discussion, letting Scripture critique and guide how the book proceeds. His basic concept throughout is that the church is not a stagnant entity, established at a certain point in history, then demanding that surrounding culture respond to it. He writes, “All too easily the Church can become a prisoner for the image it has made for itself at one particular period in history.”
He continues by saying, “Every age has its own image of the Church, arising out of a particular historical situation; in every age a particular view of the Church is expressed by the Church in practice, and given conceptual form, post hoc or ante hoc, by the theologians of the age.” Yet he acknowledges the weight of the authority of those who have gone before us, understanding as well there is a “constant factor” which underlies what the Church is at its essence. The discussion begins with a look at the foundations of the church as a part of the eschatological expectation of the coming kingdom of God. It then looks at various vital images of the church, including the church as the People of God, the church as the Creation of the Spirit, and the church as the Body of Christ. From here it analyzes the church from the perspective of the great creedal statement seeking to understand what it means that the Church is One, Catholic, Apostolic, and Holy. Only with these foundations established does Küng then seek to look at the structures of the church as seen in the offices, roles, and present government.
In the third part of his section on The Fundamental Structure of the Church Küng discusses what it means that the Church is the Body of Christ. He begins by looking at what is often considered the beginning of entry into the church, baptism. This act is not simply an imaginative exercise, but is indeed significant expression of faith and a dedication to Christ, arising from a faith which spurs one to take an active part in the life of the church. At its core, faith then becomes more than a simple individual decision, with baptism signifying the presence and commitment to a community of faith, a community which is owes its allegiance to Jesus. Because faith precedes and leads to baptism, Küng argues that the believer is not making himself a part of the community, but is rather acting in response to God’s call.
Neither is the community setting a standard for which a believer is allowed to enter, rather the community draws the new believer into what has been established by God, letting the community be shaped as and how the Spirit moves in the lives of those who become a part. Thus, baptism is not simply a one-sided expression of commitment to the church, it is also a commitment of the community to the person, an act of commitment which guarantees the relationship. Although the person may choose to reject the commitment, the church is still held to being committed to the person, prompting efforts to be made to draw those who have been baptized into a healthy and prosperous relationship. The question is not whether there is a commitment between the baptized and the Church, but rather it is a question of the quality of the relationship.
After establishing the historic basis of the Lord’s Supper Küng begins to look at the purpose and meaning of this gathering. He states, ‘The new fellowship which met to share meals was according to the New Testament characterized by eschatological joy (cf. especially Acts 2:46): joy in the experience of this new fellowship, joy especially in the awareness of fellowship with the glorified Christ who would be present in the meal of the community, joy above all in their excited expectation of the approaching kingdom of God.” This joy derives from a threefold perspective which should characterize the People of God. The perspective of the past prompts recollection and thanksgiving for how God has acted, especially in the death of Jesus. The perspective of the present prompts joy in the celebration of the community, and the One who draws together and unites the separate individuals into one church. The perspective of the future brings the joy of anticipation, the anticipation of the future consummation of history and the eternal reign of the Messiah. As a link to the future this meal already anticipates in the present that which is not yet fully known. This meal is thus a “fellowship, koinonia, communio” with the risen Christ and his present community.”
The last part of this chapter Küng provides a most interesting perspective. If those who are baptized are guaranteed community, what is the church to do with heresy, people or ideas which threaten the core unity of the church. He quickly notes that numbers do not equal correctness. The minority is not always the one which needs to be reunited with the majority. In responding to heresy, the reaction should not be simply to reject or attack. Rather, Küng points out that there is always an element of truth in heresy, there is something which the heresy is exaggerating or pointing out, maybe to an extreme level, but still may be highlighting the Church’s own weakness.
The Church, Küng argues, while intent in preserving all Truth, may not have arrived yet at this lofty goal, and thus must be willing to hear correction. Küng boldly states, “In all ages the Church has been partly responsible for the rise of great heresies, and nearly always by neglecting or even by obscuring and distorting the Gospel.” Heretics are rarely seeking the destruction of the church for its own sake, but rather are wrestling with their own faith. In responding to heresy, the church must realize its commitment to the baptized, listening and being willing to look at its own missteps, letting heresy become constructive rather than divisive and destructive.
In the first part of his last section on The Offices of the Church, Küng takes up a rallying cry of the Protestant reformation which is the Priesthood of all believers. Taking up again the idea of the church as the people of God and the body of Christ Küng maintains that “all Christians are taught and led and supported by the Spirit directly, without mediation, and they are all to live by the Spirit. The anointing is not just given to prophets and kings, but to the whole community, each individual being filled with the fullness of God. This means that all believers have direct access to God, allowing themselves to be a spiritual offering to God thus becoming holy in every action. All believers also are called to be preachers, not simply with words but with actions, not simply in the church building but in all of their lives.
The Word is thus preached in every part and place of society, in a multitude of ways, expressing through manifold ways the love which God has for the whole world. Küng writes, “Every believer can and must, having been taught by God, teach others; can and must, having received the word of God, be its herald in some form or other.” The early church was able to spread the Christian message so quickly and thoroughly because it was proclaimed by all through the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers, not simply through the anointed message of a charismatic evangelist.
With this comes the idea that baptizing, the celebration of the Lord’s supper, and the forgiving of sins does not require the presence of a particularly degreed individual. Each person in the church, Küng writes, has the power to baptize and teach, to administer and receive the whole of the Eucharistic feast, to take part in the reception and forgiveness of those who sin. As those who are filled with the Spirit those within the Church are able to effectively mediate between God and the world, with a responsibility which goes far beyond simply inviting someone to church. The believer, not just the clergy, is charged to devote themselves to others, through prayer and service allowing the light of Christ to shine even in the darkest places. The believer “lives before God for others and is in turn supported by others.” Küng continues by saying, “The worship of this priesthood thus develops from being worship within the community to being worship within the everyday secular world.” A worship which would radically transform the church itself, and radically impact the world which we are called to serve.
In dealing with the specific Scriptures with an understanding of the importance of dealing with Scriptures as a whole, Hans Küng offered to the church a text which has few parallels. Indeed it is sad that this text is now out of print, and the thoughts of over thirty years ago really never have been properly addressed by many church communities. The thoughts which it contains are really as radical now, and point to how the church needs to continue to examine itself. By continuing in a structure of the past, the church is no longer as able to discover or relate what the Spirit is doing in the present. By acknowledging the work of the Spirit, becoming communities which seek to celebrate rather than direct and limit how the Spirit is moving, we can become participants in the salvific work which is being done in our midst, with or without our assistance. Küng offers a tremendous outline for recovering a fluidity in our structures, showing us the boundaries and guidelines which would let us end a rigid argumentative tendency and become truly a community led and moved by the Spirit of God.