A brief, but appreciative review of “Jesus and the Church” by Paul Avis (T & T Clark: London, 2020)

The full title of this fine book is Jesus and the Church: The Foundation of the Church in the New Testament and Modern Theology which fairly summarizes the author’s interest and intent — to investigate the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the church which he founded. Or did he? That is the question. Did Jesus intend to “found” a church. If so, how? If not, is the church anything more than a human creation?

To seek answers to those questions, Paul Avis embarks upon a two part project: in the first part he surveys the New Testament evidence as modern critical scholarship has presented it. The conclusion here, as Avis himself states, is that he has “established beyond any serious doubt, on the basis of modern biblical study, that Jesus of Nazareth neither founded by any explicit act, nor intended as part of his purpose, the church that soon emerged in history bearing his name and claiming his authority.” (page 199)

The first of the twin pillars holding up this contention is the fact that Jesus’ self described mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He came to restore Israel, not to found a church. And the second pillar is the overwhelming New Testament evidence that Jesus and his original hearers and followers expected the parousia and God’s establishment of the kingdom to happen immanently. There was no need, no time to establish a church. With these findings I am in total agreement.

That does not, however, preclude the possibility that Jesus intended to leave behind a remnant, a community awaiting the rapidly approaching eschaton out of which the church, as the unfolding of the New Testament reveals, developed. Just how this occurred is the burden of the second half of Avis’ book in which he traces various approaches by representatives of modern theology in the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions.

Neither Paul Avis nor I are fans of Karl Barth, preferring Tillich or even Pannenberg as pinnacles of the Protestant approaches. But, while Avis leans toward Karl Rahner or even Walter Kasper on the Roman Catholic side, I would be hard pressed to abandon my life-long theological ‘”mentor” Hans Kung in this regard. I would have been helped by a little more on this prophetic giant.

We would perhaps both need to acknowledge certain historical and theological realities which might keep us from embracing Michael Ramsey’s conclusions completely, but his The Gospel and the Catholic Church is still hard to beat in articulating an Anglican approach to the questions at hand.

In the final chapter, Avis seeks to draw the threads together, concluding that Jesus Christ is not the founder, but the “one foundation” of the church which arose with him in his Resurrection and was filled with his Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Hallmarks of this reality include the restoration of Israel and the Temple, the harvest of the nations (gentiles), good news for the oppressed and, above all, the Paschal Mystery.

I will need more time to meditate on this final section, finding it somehow less satisfying than the preceding chapters on first reading. Happily, there are more volumes to come from this prolific author in the series “Theological Foundations of the Christian Church.” I look forward with great anticipation to this series. For, whether or not I have found Paul Avis’ conclusions entirely satisfying, I have no doubt that for this book (as Avis says himself for Karl Rahner) “it is the theological journey, not the arrival that is most rewarding.” (page 165)

2 Responses to “A brief, but appreciative review of “Jesus and the Church” by Paul Avis (T & T Clark: London, 2020)”

  1. billkupersmith Says:

    ‘The Church’s One Foundation’! Still, we believe that we were ‘commissioned’ by Jesus to continue His work.

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