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A Doxological Ecclesiology: Part Two

April 12, 2012

Inagrace Dietterich

In this post I continue to explore what the life and ministry of the church might look like grounded in and expressed through worship.  My intent is to lay down theological foundations, and later to explore some of the practical considerations.  Join in the conversation now, and face to face at the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 26-28, 2012.

A Particular People


A Particular People. “The people whom I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.” Isaiah 43:21. A people of praise is a particular people, a people with a distinctive identity and vision. A doxological perspective not only transforms our view of the world, by reconnecting the creation with its Creator, it also transforms our understanding of the very nature of human life.  Read More…

Life as Communion. While incompletely and inadequately utilized, the Christian tradition contains a rich theology of communion which was formulated not in philosophical speculation and isolation, but within the liturgical life and communal practice of the church.   Read More…

God as Trinitarian Community. Just as the modern anthropological perspective presupposes and reinforces an individualistic and subjectivistic understanding of God (God as Supreme Being of Absolute Subject), so a truly trinitarian doctrine of God can provide the framework for a theological understanding of community.   Read More…

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. What does it mean to say that “worship is the one unique and essential activity of the church”?

2. In what ways do you think the perspectives of our secular culture shape our expectation and experience of worship?  More Questions…



A Particular People. “The people whom I formed for myself, so that they might declare my praise.” Isaiah 43:21. A people of praise is a particular people, a people with a distinctive identity and vision. A doxological perspective not only transforms our view of the world, by reconnecting the creation with its Creator, it also transforms our understanding of the very nature of human life. Within Western culture, the presuppositions of individualism are deeply ingrained. The influence of the philosopher Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” should not be underestimated. “We in the West today think of a person as a ‘self’ who may be further defined as an individual center of consciousness, a free, intentional subject, one who knows and is known, loves and is loved, an individual identity, a unique personality endowed with certain rights, a moral agent, someone who experiences, weighs, decides, and acts.”1

In reaction to the ontological individualism of the “Cartesian tradition,” new criteria of thought which move beyond the dualism of individualism and collectivism into categories of community have arisen in science, philosophy, and psychology. These movements emphasize the social and relational qualities of personhood, and indeed of all reality, by giving priority to interaction and participation as modes of being and knowing.

Yet “community” is an ambiguous word that carries many different meanings. As one theologian commented: “Community has become such a buzz word, you want to hit it with a flyswatter!” It represents profound human dreams—the intimacy of family and friends, but also deep despair—the pain of dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations. Modern individualism is filled with tensions which reflect the desire for patterns of sharing and support, linked with the values of self-reliance and independence. What is needed is a theological understanding of the social: a communal perspective which reflects both relation and otherness, connectedness and freedom and a critical social theory which can frame a faithful and effective ecclesiology.

Life as Communion. While incompletely and inadequately utilized, the Christian tradition contains a rich theology of communion which was formulated not in philosophical speculation and isolation, but within the liturgical life and communal practice of the church. Approaching God through personal relationships and personal love, early church theologians such as Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Athanasius, developed an ontology of communion: “being means life, and life means communion.” 2 “In this way, communion becomes an ontological concept in patristic thought. Nothing in existence is conceivable in itself, as an individual…, since even God exists thanks to an event of communion.” 3 The word “God” means nothing other than the life which is actively shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is communion.

Within this perspective, participation in the community of faith symbolizes and actualizes participation within the communion of the Triune God–Christians share in the very life of God. And this participation in the life of the Triune God redeems and transforms human life. For example, rather than baptism signifying simply the “washing away of the sins” of the individual, or membership in the institutional church, baptism is a “conversion” from the isolation of autonomous individualism to the mutuality of communal personhood—to ecclesial community. “The rebirth of humanity requires that he or she should die as an individual through baptism and enter into a new life, a mode of existence where life is realized as communion in love and relationship. At baptism the whole of a person’s life becomes an ecclesial event, a fact of communion and relationship.” 4

God as Trinitarian Community. Just as the modern anthropological perspective presupposes and reinforces an individualistic and subjectivistic understanding of God (God as Supreme Being of Absolute Subject), so a truly trinitarian doctrine of God can provide the framework for a theological understanding of community. When God is perceived as a dynamic community of relation and freedom united in a reciprocal communion of life and work, then trinitarian theology becomes a relational theology which explores the mysteries of love, relationship, personhood, and communal life. A model of community is offered which affirms the uniqueness of each person, distinct and inseparable from others, yet which also asserts that personal existence consists in their relationship with one another.

Through participation in the life of the ecclesial community, Christians discover that the life of God is not that of an abstract static substance, but a living interdependence, a divine “dance” of participation and interaction. And this dance is not a private or closed communion, but an open and vibrant abundance—“an overflow of mutual delight, of mutual glorification in an infinity of interesting creativity”5 —which seeks the transformation and fulfillment of all reality. The very life of God is dynamic, personal, and thus relational. God is ecstatic and creative love which exists toward and for others. As we praise, and thus know and participate in the communion of the Triune God, Christians are transformed into a particular people, a people of ecstatic and creative love. The church, as a people of praise who finds its identity in adoration and love, is much more than a voluntary association of independent selves. Through praise and worship, Christians enter into communion with the Triune God, are freed from the bondage of individualism, and are united into a free communion of love and service. Christians are a particular people, a people called and formed by a particular God—the interdependent and interrelated communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. Read 1 Peter 2:9-10. What do we learn from this text about the identity and purpose of “a particular people”?

2. How does this text differ from the modern conception of the identity and purpose of the individual?

3. How would you characterize both the desire and the fear of community?

4. What is meant by an “ontology of communion”?

5. How does the vision of God as trinitarian shape the Christian understanding of community?

6. How does a relational theology—the church as a particular people—shape the subversive action of worship?



1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), p. 250.

2 John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), p. 16.

3 Ibid., p. 17.

4 Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), p. 62.

5 Daniel W. Hardy and David F. Ford, Praising and Knowing God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), p. 120.


The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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