When I first purchased Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament in the late 1970s, the man himself hadn’t been deceased too long, and I found his studies very intriguing: ideas to keep thinking about. In volume 2 (pp. 95-100), Bultmann has a fascinating discussion of the concept of the church (ecclesia). Is the church a thing in history, or a Spirit-led, eschatological reality? A related question is: is its laws and regulations “created from case to case by the free sway of the Spirit,” and “can the leaders’ authority have any other foundation than the gracious gift of the Spirit?” or are those laws and regulations worked out historically (p. 95)?
Common sense, historical examples, and biblical theology all tell us that both are true, but connecting the church’s historical nature (and thus its imperfections, idiosyncrasies, and culturally-defined aspects) and the church’s eternal identity can be tricky. I had a conversation about this recently with a Roman Catholic friend who regretted the way the church handled abuse cases in recent years: God upholds and sustains that and other churches, but churches and denominations are also imperfect bureaucracies led by fallible people, “CYA” attitudes, and other human foibles. Not to pick on the Catholic Church: many of us Protestants could cite other examples, any time a church or denomination struggles with the guidance of the Spirit along with faithfulness to established rules, traditions and values.
Bultmann explains that the discussion is a notable one between Adolf Harnack and Rudolf Sohm. For Sohm, “any such thing as ecclesiastical law stands in contradiction to the nature of Ecclesia; with such a thing a notion (first visible in I Clem.) invades the Church that the authority of Spirit-endowed persons it he authority of the office. But that is the sinful fall of the church; by it she denies her own nature” (pp. 95-96). Bultmann goes on to say that Harnack argues the opposite: the church had regulations in its very early years, as showed in the New Testament (p. 96). The difference is found in the fact that the church is both a historical phenomenon and an eschatological (that is, pertaining to God’s final victory) congregation guided by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. The church understands itself to be the latter, but it is also the former.
Bultmann notes that Sohm is correct and reflects the New Testament picture, where the Spirit-gifted and –endowed persons are also persons in authority and/or proclaimers of God’s world, but that Sohm misreads the Bible in believing that legal provisions cannot also be Spirit-created rules. Bultmann notes the possibility of tradition reflected in 1 Cor 7:40 and 14:37, as well as the canonical stipulation of Rev. 22:18f). Bultmann notes that the New Testament would not have been writing, transmitted, and canonized if regulative tradition and Spirit-guidance were mutually exclusive (pp. 97-98).
He goes on to show that the biblical congregations were called upon the “test Spirit-endowed people (1 Thess. 5:21, 1 Cor. 12:10, 14:29), to send missionaries (Acts 13:2) and delegates (1 Cor. 16:3, 1 Cor. 8:19, Acts 15:2), hold sessions for decisions (1 Cor. 4:3, 5:3f, 2 Cor. 2:6), as well as proposals voted on by a congregation Acts 6:2, 5, 15:22), and also congregational “prophetic” participation (1 Tim. 18:18, Acts 4:14) (p. 99). Altogether, “Intelligent conduct which arises from a recognition of what the situation demands does not exclude the possibility that the Spirit is working in such conduct. It is also no less true that services performed through the Spirit in and for the congregation do not contradict the nature of the Spirit simply because of being connected with an office” (pp. 99-100). Both Pauline and Johannine theology, as well as the synagogue tradition of Judaism, prevented the early church from taking a view similar to Sohm’s depiction.
Bultmann’s thoughts reminded me of another book by one of his students, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church by Nils Alstrup Dahl, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976). I didn’t have a class with Dahl at my divinity school but I asked if he’d autograph this book and two others, The Crucified Messiah and Other Essays (Augsburg Publishing House, 1974) and Studies in Paul (Augsburg, 1977). Reading Bultmann and Dahl together provided a little “journey” among Scriptures concerning the nature of the Church.
In the essay “Christ, Creation, and the Church” (Jesus in the Memory), Dahl discusses the key aspects of the "rediscovery of the importance of eschatology within the New Testament" (p. 120), including the view that "the church is something new; it is seen not simply as a new religious society but as a new creation," as in 2 Cor. 5:17). This does not at all negate the church's pre-Christ roots, and in fact, continuity with Israel and the scriptures is not broken at all (p. 120). But what Dodd had famously called "realized eschatology" means that the church is not only recipient of a new covenant but also a new creation in Christ (pp. 120-121).
"Not only the personal relation between men is restored in Christ, but also the right relation to material things. The great christological hymn in Colossians 1 implies an indirect polemic against the asceticism of the false teachers. Later in the epistle Paul goes on to say that Christians, who are dead with Christ to the cosmic powers, are therefore free to use what God has created, the things which 'perish when they are used' (Col. 2:20-23; cf. Rom. 14:6, 14; 1 Tim. 4:4). The paradoxical situation of the church here becomes very clear; Christians are no longer living 'in the world', but precisely for this reason they are free from 'ordinances' and free to make use of material things, without discrimination" (p. 137). We see this similarly in the 1 Corinthians discussion of eating meat. " 'The earth and its fullness' belongs to the Lord, and in Christ men are made free to make the right use of it" (p. 137).
Of course, the church still suffers and is tempted (2 Cor. 11:30, but our other experience, for Dahl, is the new life (Col. 3:10f) and our transformation (2 Cor. 3:18, so that we grow toward "eschatological perfection" (Eph. 4:13ff) (p. 139)