Käsemann on the Church

I’ve just been reading Ernst Käsemann’s essay on ‘Unity and multiplicity in the New Testament doctrine of the Church’ in New Testament Questions of Today (trans. W. J. Montague; London: SCM Press, 1969). Discovered a few blogworthy statements:

Theology never grows in the vacuum of abstraction, untouched by contemporary history. While this fact is generally admitted, it is nevertheless frequently deprived of its offending sting.’ (p. 255)

‘… in spite of all its vicissitudes, its tensions and its contradictions, primitive Christianity proclaimed the one Church, not in the sense of a theory of organic development but in the name of the reality and the truth of the Holy Spirit. How was this possible? How can we take up this task in our own day? How can our insight into this diversity of ecclesiologies deepen and clarify our confession of the unity of Christ’s Church rather than destroy it? … I am convinced that the solution of this problem lies neither on the historical plane nor at the level of organizational strategy. The unity of the Church was, is and remains primarily an eschatological property, to be enjoyed only as a gift, never as an assured possession. The unity of the Church cannot be apprehended except by faith which hears the voice of the one Shepherd and obeys his call to form one flock, his flock.’ (p. 257)

Here I am reminded of Forsyth’s insistence that Church unity would not come by working in co-operation, nor by breaking down social barriers among the Churches, nor by agreement of creedal formula (as important as these things are. Church unity, he maintained, would come by thinking, by thinking of the reality that we are already one in Christ and his Gospel. It is finally theological question. It is confessional. (see Theology in Church and State, 23).

‘Is not the supremely important thing that the Lord should remain sovereign over his servants, the head over the members, and that our picture of him and his lordship should not displace, overshadow, seem to correct his own? If this were realized in practice, then the relationship of Christ and his Church would never be reversible and the unity of the Church would then require of us that we should not place ourselves on the same footing with him nor think to complete his work nor make ourselves in any way independent of him. We should have to decrease, in order that he might increase. Christology is the permanent measure of all ecclesiology.’ (pp. 257-8)

‘ … all tradition and all ministerial office within the Church can possess authority only as long and as far as they help us to hear Christ addressing us; as far, that is, as they continue to be servants of the promise of the Gospel and of the means of grace designated in the New Testament.’ (p. 258)

Can [the true being of the community of Jesus] really be a religious association among others, measurable in terms of piety and morality, of cult and organization, of profound speculations and wide influence? Doubtless, this is what it looks like from outside, and this is how its members, corporately and individually, very frequently understand it. But what has all this to do with the Jesus who associated with tax-collectors and sinners and died for the godless. Is not the only relevant criterion here whether or not this community follows him? That would liberate it from staying put in earthly camps and despatch it at once to the far corners of the earth, there to show forth God’s solidarity with his creatures. In following the crucified one, it would have its part in the glory of the Christ. To sum up: the worth of every ecclesiology, even in the New Testament, can be estimated precisely. The criterion is the extent to which it succeeds in declaring the royal freedom and the lordship of Jesus Christ who, according to Eph. 2, is himself alone the unity of his Church. (pp. 258-9)


  1. What a brilliant post. My word you hear some guff about unity these days, and it all amounts to ecclesiological triumphalism.


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