While maintaining the theological nature of his study, Roger Haight's historical ecclesiology lays a sturdy foundation in a historical, sociological analysis of the beginnings and development of the Christian Church from its origin in Jesus of Nazareth to the eve of the Reformation. After the age of Constantine, Haight focuses on the western church in order, he says, to keep the book within bounds. Haight's theology from below takes seriously the action of God in human history, especially in the history of Christianity. Revelation remains a primary source for theology, but in and through the human grasp of God's Word and the development of the structures of the community that meets that Word in faith. Haight carefully lays out his meaning of "ecclesiology from below" in four points (pp. 4-5): 1) his method is "concrete, existential, and historical." The focus is "the actual church as it exists in history in various times and places." 2) Haight begins with Jesus the Jew since an organization must be understood in "its origins as well as the journey from then to the present." 3) Social and historical analysis are also employed to analyze the church itself. 4) An "ecclesiology from below" is a theological discipline that cannot be reduced to sociology and history. So, for example, the "insight and conviction that God as Spirit is present in the preaching of the Word or the operation of the sacraments, are theological judgments."
The community of the faithful who look to Jesus Christ as God's saving presence among them broadens the base of the church to include all the faithful, however differently their ecclesiologies may emerge and develop throughout history. An "ecclesiology from below" is therefore radically ecumenical. It emphasizes shared basic beliefs rather than different organizational forms. But it also honors the distinctive developments of each community that makes it the kind of faith community that it is. Thus diversity is valued as the best witness to the work of the Spirit of Jesus in a world of human communities diversified historically and sociologically but unified in a common confession of Jesus as God's Word who inspirits them.
I have space here only to sketch the development of this richly challenging book. Volume I covers the development of the western church to 1500. After the first remarkable chapters that lay out Haight's method and goals, the material follows standard church historical studies, for example major sources for the overall picture are Friend and Chadwick although Haight consults other and more recent scholars as well. But each chapter concludes with a social historical analysis and a few illuminating pages that draw out principles for historical theology. It is these analytic pages that set Haight's book apart from other studies.
This is a groundbreaking volume; I look forward to volume II that will bring the project from the Reformation to the present. I must record, however, on recurring disappointment. Given Haight's principles and method, it is difficult to see why he did not use a comparative approach. Excellent volumes now exist that cover world Christianity. Would not Haight's theses be better exemplified by showing how the western church developed as it did while the Coptic or the Maronite, or even the Byzantine churches developed differently in response to their different histories and sociological situations? The growth of the papacy in the west could be contrasted with the Byzantine patriarchates. Augustine's works set a theological agenda for the western church but did not influence the Eastern Church that relied rather on the Cappadocians and John Damasus, among others. How did these theological differences and the emperor's residence at Constantinople affect the structures of the church in the east? Eastern Christendom never experienced a reformation or even a renaissance and enlightenment except second hand. Surely these differences would illuminate Haight's theses concerning the historical, sociological, and theological developments in these different churches.
But I ask too much or suggest an agenda for other studies. Haight has served all ecclesiologists well by initiating a way of looking at ecclesiology as it develops on the ground, so to speak. He has done it with theological integrity and clear analyses. He challenges us all to understand differences as values and the most appropriate way for the incarnation to continue through human history, honoring both the human and the divine whether in the stable or the palace or the council chamber.