Church in Ordinary Time (Amy Plantinga Pauw) - A Review

CHURCH IN ORDINARY TIME: A Wisdom Ecclesiology. By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Ix + 188 pages.

I've never liked the liturgical designation ordinary time, preferring to speak of Epiphany and Pentecost as extended seasons. I’ve not even bothered to learn the numbering system, preferring to refer to the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost (excepting Trinity Sunday) as further expressions of those two days. Epiphany marks the earthly presence of Jesus and Pentecost the outworking of the Spirit’s presence in the church. I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my current practice, but Amy Plantinga Paw has given new meaning to the designation “ordinary time.” She does this in the context of working out what she calls a wisdom ecclesiology. In this book "an ordinary-time ecclesiology emphasizes that the church lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things as God's creature." (p. 1). That would mean that we currently live in "ordinary time," no matter the liturgical season that is being observed at this moment.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons. First, my own scholarly interests focus on ecclesiology. That's what I wrote on in my doctoral dissertation in historical theology (18th century high church Anglican ecclesiology). The other reason is that the author of this book was a M.Div. classmate at Fuller Seminary back in the mid-1980s. So, I set about to read the book that explored an area of great interest to me. I will admit that it took longer to read than I expected. It's not a long book—just 164 pages of text. It’s also thoroughly readable. Pauw is a good writer. But there is a certain theological density present in the book that requires close reading. Thinking about the church in conversation with Wisdom theology (and the Bible’s Wisdom literature) is something different. Instead of thinking in terms of the church’s divine nature, that is, our existence as Christ’s ongoing body, Pauw invites us to consider more clearly the creaturely nature of the church. This is something of a paradigm shift in ecclesial thought. Thus, it requires more reflection.

In exploring the nature of the church in conversation with a wisdom theology. She reminds us that the church exists within creation. It is composed of flesh and blood people. In response to a growing trend within our ecclesial conversations that seek to separate out the church from the world—often with the explanation that the church can have a stronger witness to the world if it focuses on its own health (thereby getting its act together), so that the world might see the church and desire to join in with it—Pauw focuses on the church’s place within creation. Yes, we need to get our act together, but that doesn’t require us to separate out from the world. In part this reflects a traditional Reformed perspective that has always embraced the transformative nature of the church’s presence in the world. In other words, this is not an Anabaptist view of the church. While I have sympathies for the Anabaptist vision, I find the Reformed vision more realistic as a program of witness.

As noted, Pauw writes from within the Reformed tradition. She is Presbyterian (and is part of a family deeply rooted in the Christian Reformed Church). Her scholarly work has focused on Jonathan Edwards, the most important American Reformed thinker. Her reflections on the church have roots in her Reformed background. She writes of this Reformed influence: "I have inherited a self-relativizing view of the church, one that acknowledges the social and cultural relativism of all ecclesial patterns and structures, and approaches them with a rather functional pragmatism" (p. 5). In other words, she’s not a restorationist, seeking to return to an idealized vision of the church of the first century. From that platform, she understands that there is no final definitive form of the church or ministry.

With this Reformed foundation, Pauw has turned to the biblical Wisdom tradition, as a conversation partner for her ecclesiological ruminations. From that perspective, she notes that the church is not only heir to the Abrahamic covenant, but more specifically the church is heir to the Noachic covenant. In this covenant vision, the church shares a common humanity with folks beyond the boundaries of church. Writing from that vantage point, she notes that the Wisdom tradition has been largely neglected as a source of ecclesial conversation. Central to the theology of these books is God as creator, and God's continuing engagement as creator. Thus, "a wisdom ecclesiology calls church to embrace its radical contingency and its parity with other creatures" (p. 13).

Church in Ordinary Time is divided into eleven chapters that are organized under three sections (as a good Trinitarian theologian might). Part 1 is titled "Wise Earthlings" and its two chapters focus on creation and the church's place in creation (it's rather smallish place). Part two is titled "The Redemption of Our Bodies." In these three chapters, we're introduced more fully into the creatureliness of the church, and Christ's role in holding things together. That is, a wisdom ecclesiology is rooted in a Wisdom Christology.

Finally, in Part 3, Pauw writes of the "church in the power of the Spirit" (a title echoing the important work on a Spirit-ecclesiology of Jurgen Moltmann). This section is divided into six chapters that focus on the liturgical progression from Advent (Longing) to Pentecost (joining hands). The section is introduced, however, by a chapter titled "making new and making do" that explores “ordinary time.” There is redemption in this movement into the future, but it is important ecclesially to remember that we live our daily lives in ordinary time. In this context there is no spirit/body bifurcation. She writes that "live in the Spirit means sharing this affinity (affinity for material things) affirming our creaturely identities and our creaturely place in this world God loves" (p. 110). With this emphasis on wisdom, the church becomes a "place of lifelong embodied learning," and involves certain practices. We are engaged in a process of learning and growth, but our practices are not perfect. Instead, we make do. We make do because of our creaturely limits. Here the Wisdom tradition contributes, as she notes "often creaturely wisdom presents itself not in sharp contrasts, but in tradeoffs between competing goods. Growth in wisdom requires a patience that acknowledges creaturely limits and temptations" (p. 114). I appreciated this message because sometimes in our pursuit of spiritual perfection we reject the creaturely side, and thus reject the church because it only makes do, and is not a community of perfection.

There is much in the book that invites us to return time and again to explore. It is provocative and theologically rich. While I am tempted at times to embrace the vision of the church as a separated community, I'm not sure that such a vision is ultimately redemptive or doable. Here is an ecclesiology that is not just practical, but fit for ordinary time, that time standing between resurrection and consummation. One key component of this vision is expressed in the last chapter (before the epilogue), in which she speaks of Pentecost in terms of "joining hands." Speaking of mission, she writes that it is the church's acknowledgment of "the incompleteness of its own life. It is an effort to catch up with where the Spirit is already at work. The Spirit's bodily curriculum requires joining hands with those who are far off—geographically and otherwise. It is a slow and difficult curriculum, in which we learn by being joined to people we might otherwise prefer not to associate with" (p. 155). Indeed, the church is often a place where people gather who would not gather for any other occasion. We are not an affinity group. We are a Spirit-called gathering of people who are jointed together by the Spirit. 

While I have made great use of the image of the church as the body of Christ, that imagery can lead to a divinized vision of the church, one that lacks bodily existence. It can be too transcendent, too spiritual, and not sufficiently creaturely. Here we have an ecclesiology that speaks to our time. It engages creation. In fact, it invites the church to envision the presence of God beyond the bounds of the church, for creation is bigger than the church. It’s probably messier than the currently popular separatist vision, but it may have longer staying power. With that observation, I highly recommend this book written by my former classmate to colleagues who struggle, as I do, to be faithful in leadership of a church that lives imperfectly within creation.


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