Cheryl M. PETERSON. Who is the Church? An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. viii + 153 pages. $22.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8006-9881-2. Reviewed by Francis X. KLOSE, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19144
Who is the Church: An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century is Cheryl M. Peterson’s first work, her doctoral dissertation-turned published work. Peterson is an associate professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and thus, this work is one from a Lutheran perspective. However, the work will be one that would be a valuable tool for Catholics and other denominations alike. Peterson asks the right questions that address what it means to be “church” in the present world and offers a valuable conclusion that understands today’s Christian.
Peterson’s introduction begins with the important question, what do we do in the present day, in which the church is simply a battle for survival? With numbers declining and the cultural and social influence of the church dwindling, fear and anxiety highlight what it means to be Christian. Further, the rejection of all religion altogether makes for a situation that is more anxious than ever. What is a church to do? To find out, Peterson takes the view of the church “from below” – at the ground level, beginning with the basic “concrete ecclesiastical practices”.
Studying the Church in the United States begins with a look at “Christendom”, or the view of a “Christian America” that has emerged not on a government level, but on a cultural level. Peterson begins by looking at the Puritan viewpoints that expected the nation to be the “redeemer nation”. The voluntary society culture that followed in some ways laid the groundwork for what was yet to come. The Enlightenment led to an American focused on the “certainty of progress” and Peterson shows how that would continue to be the focal point as America moved into the 19th century. This all leads Peterson to state that “de facto” American ecclesiology based on the past leads to the wrong questions and leads Peterson to focus on who God is and what God is doing.
Thus, Peterson focuses on two models of ecclesiology: the church as a word-event and the church as communion. Luther’s deviation in terms of ecclesiology was the pastoral approach that the word of God would succeed anywhere that it was properly proclaimed and properly nourished the faithful. In a Post-Christendom, the challenge is that there are fewer opportunities for people to hear the Gospel. This, Peterson argues, can be accomplished in the “sending forth” of those who hear. The model of the church as communion stems forth from the Pauline greeting: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit”. The Greek koinonia, translated to “communion” is this essence: that all must demonstrate unity as Christians in society in a post-Christendom world.
After laying out the history of American ecclesiology and prominent models, Peterson’s unique take emerges: the “missional church”. Amid people looking to “bring up the numbers” and people being stuck in de facto Christianity, the principle of missio Dei is lost. Missio Dei is an important part of the church in which God calls the church into being and live through the Spirit. This calls for the Christian to join the Spirit in the work the Spirit is doing in the world. Thus, Peterson argues that narrative is the method most proper to exploring the church’s identity, from the perspective of what the Holy Spirit is doing. The Acts of the Apostles is a perfect starting point to see where the Holy Spirit has worked in the Church’s narrative and that there is much Christians can learn accordingly.
Peterson’s ecclesiology that “starts with the Spirit” is valuable to all Christians who seek to respond to the challenges of the Post-Christendom world. Peterson’s valuable assessment of the world today, challenging traditional assumptions are a valuable tool for any Christian who is looking to study ecclesiology. While I accepted this book review almost ignorantly assuming the work would be Catholic, I found it very valuable in my Catholic theology classrooms and recommend this text to any professor teaching a course in ecclesiology, regardless of denomination.