Does God Need the Church, by Gerhard Lohfink

Gerhard Lohfink. Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999.

Book Review submitted by Xochitl Alvizo, Ph.D. Candidate in Practical Theology, Concentration: Congregation and Community

The work of salvation that God has done in Christ is not realized in its full scope if Christ does not take form in the church (footnote, 302). This is a central point for Gerard Lohfink in his book, Does God Need the Church? To help the church understand what this means and help the church grasp the immensity of what it is a part, Lohfink traces God’s actions all through history, beginning with creation, and more specifically, traces God’s actions to one person in one place, Abram in Palestine. The church is a continuation of the work that God began three thousand years ago. The work that God has done for the salvation of the world began with Abraham, culminated with Jesus, but continues in the church. The church (the body of Christ, the people of God, the people gathered, eschatologically renewed Israel) is that through which the whole world is to be saved. The world is supposed to be able to look at the church and see “how God proposes that human society should be” (302). The church is the “realm within which Christ rules” (260), it offers the world an embodied social reality through which it can see and taste, and perhaps freely choose, God’s salvation. 

Lohfink stresses that the church is a continuation of God’s salvation plan for the world, a plan that began in such a small way with one person in one place and time. That God started small for God’s revolutionary plan for the whole world, is no small point. It is important not only because by starting small God is able to preserve human freedom, but it is important because by starting in a small concrete, visible, and tangible place and time, God offers the world an opportunity to “behold and test this new thing” (27). The church is now supposed to be that concrete tangible place, body, where the world can come and see. As Lohfink places the church in the greater context of God’s plan for the world, demonstrating the centrality of its existence for salvation, he then also demonstrates the necessity of the church’s unity, unanimity, if it is to fulfill that identity and purpose in the world. The church is the gathered people of God who have answered God’s call and have surrendered their life to God for the embodiment of God’s new creation. But how can God’s new creation be embodied if God’s people are not of one Spirit, in Christ? Lohfink pinpoints the tragedy of the condition of Christianity, which he likens to a broken mirror that distorts the image of Christ, to the divisions that have plagued the church from its very early history (298). He points out that even Jesus’ farewell prayer highlights the necessity of unity in the church so that the world would also believe. Jesus prayed, “I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (298). Lohfink then makes the point that the “divisions in the people of God makes it almost impossible for the world to believe” (299).

What is Lohfink’s solution then? Part of it is what he does with this book. The way that he traces and remembers the church’s history within Israel’s history and the way he digs deep into the scriptures as a whole is what he believes the whole church must also do. The church needs to go back to its beginnings, it needs to trace its roots and identity in Israel and understand that the church belongs to Israel. In this way the church can begin to mend one of its very first divides. And to do this the church needs to first and foremost take the history of God’s work seriously as it has been recorded in scripture; the church needs to take the whole of the Bible seriously, not just parts. And as Peter did, the people of God need to believe with their whole passionate selves, they need to repent and stand undividedly at Jesus’ disposal, devoting their lives for Jesus’ cause (306). This is done in obedience, and can only happen “when those assembled finally cease looking at themselves…the miracle of unanimity is only possible when the assembly turns away from itself and its own interests and asks about God’s interests. What does God will?” (301)

Reading Lohfink, with the depth with which he engages the scriptures and the passion out of which he clearly writes, is inspiring and reminds me what I love about Christianity. The way in which God begins a new creation in one place with one person in a very particular moment in history, of which the church gets to be a part and in which it gets to continue, the enormity of that idea, that theology, is beyond words for me, it is something that either takes hold of you or not. At the same time, there are questions I have that Lohfink does not adequately address. There is a hierarchy of power in the church, and in every assembly of its people, that has claimed to know what God’s interests are and acts against others with this claimed “authority”. I suppose we all do, but obviously some much more than others. How do we overcome the (rightful) distrust we have with one another, and with the “offices” of the church in particular, to the point were we are able to stand “undividedly at Jesus’ disposal”? How do we, as part of the church which has historically failed to live into its identity and purpose at unspeakable cost to millions throughout history, even trust one another enough to surrender our lives in unity knowing full well the reality of the misuse of power among us? And yes, it is in God whom we trust, not ourselves or one another, for we know humans are bound to err. But what does this practically and literally mean? What does it look like to trust God in the reality of this world?

Does surrender to God mean surrender to this world and to all its systems of oppression and death as we finally cease looking at ourselves? Does this mean I no longer look to protect myself and others from these systems? For example, does it mean that I go back to Catholicism, regardless of whether it denies my ability to serve as priest, for the sake of our witness, the church’s unanimity? Since my trust is not in the church but in God, do I submit then in obedience? No longer functioning out of the myth of individualism or that of an autonomous self but as one in communion with God? Is unanimity really possible in this time that Alisdair MacIntyre affirmed as the dark ages?[1] Would Lohfink be satisfied to settle for “new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained,” which MacIntyre proposes is the way to survive these dark ages? Lohfink understands the church as having a much greater purpose; the church is to have the meaning of creation shine forth from it (120). Is it enough for it to exist as new forms of community without the unanimity for which he passionately advocates? A unanimity that seems greatly unlikely and too often comes at a great cost to some much more than it does to others.

[1] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. Norte Dame, Indiana: University of Norte Dame Press, 1984, p. 263.

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