In 1962 the Roman Catholic Church met at what was called Vatican II to address how the Roman church was addressing issues of the modern world. The issues established by the Council of Trent in the 16th century seemed to no longer be adequate for meeting the needs of a modern church. One of those involved in this Council was a theologian named Hans Küng. In his magnificent book, The Church, he gives an outline of what it means to be the church (Küng 19). It is rare indeed to find a book which is still “cutting edge” thirty years after being written, yet in The Church Küng makes relevant observations and challenges that are appropriate for the twenty-first century church.
Küng does not seem to be a rebel but rather is a prophet to his own tradition and fortunately, his insight spills over to help all of the Church develop its identity and mission. An important primary focus for Küng is his use of the Biblical text as the foundation for a proper ecclesiology. Using all of scripture but leaning heavily on the perspective of the New Testament, Küng seeks to develop a vision of what the Church ought to be. Scripture is his primary source, at every point letting the Gospel and the Letters frame the discussion and thereby letting Scripture critique and guide how the book proceeds. His basic concept throughout is that the church is not a stagnant entity, established at a certain point in history, then demanding that surrounding culture respond to it. He writes, “All too easily the Church can become a prisoner for the image it has made for itself at one particular period in history” (Ibid).
He says, “Every age has its own image of the Church, arising out of a particular historical situation; in every age a particular view of the Church is expressed by the Church in practice, and given conceptual form by the theologians of the age” (Küng 4). In saying this he is not discounting the value and the weight of the authority of those who have gone before. For Kung there is a “constant factor” which underlies what the Church is at its essence.
He states: “The foundations of the church are part of the eschatological expectation of the coming kingdom of God. And there are a variety of vital images of the church, including the church as the People of God, the church as the Creation of the Spirit, and the church as the Body of Christ. From the great creedal statements he seeks to understand what it means that the Church is One, Catholic, Apostolic, and Holy” (Ibid).
In his discussion of the Church as the Body of Christ, he begins by looking at what is often considered the beginning of entry into the church, baptism. This act is a significant expression of faith and a dedication to Christ, which spurs one to take an active part in the life of the church (Küng 206). At its core, faith then becomes more than a simple individual decision it is something that one does as part of a community. Baptism signifies the presence and commitment to a community of faith, a community that owes its allegiance to Jesus. Küng argues that the believer is not making him/herself a part of the community through the sacrament of baptism, but is rather acting in response to God’s call to be part of community.
The community draws the new believer into what has been established by God, thus the community and the Spirit are both active in the lives of those who become a part of God’s family called Church. Baptism is just a commitment of the individual to the church it is also a commitment of the community to the person. This act of commitment guarantees a relationship of encouragement and accountability. One of the profound ideas that Küng provides is that even if the person chooses to reject committing to the church, the church is still held to its commitment to the person. The church continues to draw those who have been baptized into a healthy and prosperous relationship.
Küng discusses the purpose and meaning of the Lord’s Supper. He states: “The new fellowship which met to share meals was according to the New Testament characterized by eschatological joy (cf. especially Acts 2:46): joy in the experience of this new fellowship, joy especially in the awareness of fellowship with the glorified Christ who would be present in the meal of the community, joy above all in their excited expectation of the approaching kingdom of God” (Küng 216).
This joy derives from a threefold perspective that should characterize the People of God: the past—recollection and thanksgiving for how God has acted, especially in the life and death of Jesus. The present—is the celebration of the community, and the One who draws it together and unites the separate individuals into one church. The future—brings the joy of anticipation, the anticipation of the future consummation of history and the eternal reign of the Messiah. As a link to the future this Eucharistic (joy filled) meal already anticipates in the present that which is not yet fully known. This meal is thus a “fellowship, koinonia, communio” (Küng 222) with the risen Christ and his present community.
A topic that was of great interest was heresy. Küng asks the question of what the church is to do with heresy. He defines heresy as people or ideas which threaten the core unity of the church. He notes that the majority opinion does not always equal correctness. The minority is not always the one which needs to be reunited with the majority. In responding to heresy, the reaction should not be simply to reject or attack. Rather, Küng points out that there is always an element of truth in heresy. There is something which the heresy is exaggerating or pointing out, even if to an extreme level, that may be highlighting a church weakness that needs to be reviewed or reexamined.
The Church, Küng argues, while intent in preserving all Truth, may not be willing to hear correction. Küng boldly states, “In all ages the Church has been partly responsible for the rise of great heresies, and nearly always by neglecting or even by obscuring and distorting the Gospel” (Ibid). Heretics are rarely seeking the destruction of the church for its own sake, but rather are wrestling with their own faith. In responding to heresy, the church must realize its commitment to the baptized, listening and being willing to look at its own missteps, letting heresy become constructive rather than divisive and destructive.
In the first part of his last section on “The Offices of the Church,” Küng takes up a rallying cry of the Protestant reformation which is the Priesthood of all believers. Taking up again the idea of the church as the people of God and the body of Christ, Küng maintains that
all Christians are taught and led and supported by the Spirit directly, without mediation, and they are all to live by the Spirit. The anointing is not just given to prophets and kings, but to the whole community, each individual being filled with the fullness of God. This means that all believers have direct access to God, allowing themselves to be a spiritual offering to God thus becoming holy in every action. All believers also are called to be preachers, not simply with words but with actions, not simply in the church building but in all of their lives” (Küng 377).
The Scriptures are thus preached in every part and place of society, in a multitude of ways, expressing through manifold ways the love which God has for the whole world. Küng writes, “Every believer can and must, having been taught by God, teach others; can and must, having received the word of God, be its herald in some form or other” (Ibid). The early church was able to spread the Christian message so quickly and thoroughly because it was proclaimed by all through the work and power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers, not simply through the anointed message of a charismatic evangelist.
With this comes the idea that baptizing, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the forgiving of sins does not require the presence of a particularly degreed individual. Each person in the church, Küng writes, has the power to baptize and teach, to administer and receive the whole of the Eucharistic feast, to take part in the reception and forgiveness of those who sin. This is a startling statement for a Roman Catholic theologian/priest to make. It is no wonder that the Roman church did not approve.
He believes that a church filled with the Spirit should be able to effectively mediate between God and the world, with a responsibility which goes far beyond simply inviting someone to church. The believer, not just the clergy, is charged to devote themselves to others, through prayer and service allowing the light of Christ to shine even in the darkest places. The believer “lives before God for others and is in turn supported by others” (Küng 381). Küng continues by saying, “The worship of this priesthood thus develops from being worship within the community to being worship within the everyday secular world” (Ibid); this worship would radically transform the church itself, and radically impact the world it is called to serve.
Using the Scriptures as a whole, Hans Küng offered to the church a text which has few parallels. Indeed it is sad that this text is now out of print, and the thoughts of over thirty years ago really never have been properly addressed by many church communities. The thoughts which it contains are really as radical now, and point to how the church needs to continue to examine itself.
Küng believes that if the church continues solely in a structure of the past, the church will no longer be able to discover or relate what the Spirit is doing in the present. By acknowledging the work of the Spirit, becoming communities which seek to celebrate rather than direct and limit how the Spirit is moving, we can become participants in the salvific work which is being done in our midst, with or without our assistance. Küng offers a tremendous outline for recovering a fluidity in our structures, showing us the boundaries and guidelines which would let us end a rigid argumentative tendency and become truly a community led and moved by the Spirit of God.
Küng, Hans. (1967). The Church. New York: Sheed and Ward
Dual Ravens. http://www.dualravens.com/fullerlife/kung.htm
*Dual Ravens did a good review, I have used portions of their review but have not cited specific quotes because I have added to, and edited their essay significantly, but I wanted to give accurate credit. This saved me a lot of time writing my review.