Covenant, Community, and the Spirit: A Trinitarian Theology of Church
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015
256 pp. $24.99.
In this book, Robert Sherman (prior Richard P. Buck Professor of Christian Theology at Bangor Theological Seminary), who is convinced “that we need our ecclesiological imaginations reclaimed and reignited by a more biblical, theological, and pastoral vision of the Church,” offers what he calls a “Trinitarian, Spirit-Focused Approach.” (xii) The harmonious intersection of ecclesiology and pneumatology is of prime concern here, in specific, the Spirit’s work in establishing and sustaining the Church, as well as “bringing it to consummation.” (xiii)
Sherman’s intended audience is not so much the scholar, but rather, students, pastors, and laypeople. Acknowledging the present cultural situation, and underscoring the ongoing relevance of the Church within it, Sherman quips, “Christianity can survive a postdenominational age, but it cannot survive a postecclesial age.” (xvi) If Sherman is right – and I suspect he is – then we truly ought to begin thinking better about the Church. To that end, let us now move forward, and examine Sherman’s contribution.
The book is divided into six chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 sketch an overview of the biblical narrative, and the place of the Church within it. Herein, Sherman instructs that humanity was created for communion, but that this fellowship has been sullied by the fall. Because the fall’s effects are both individual and social, salvation, then, must include both as well. This leads, appropriately, in to a discussion of the Trinity, and the divine person who applies salvation and thus vivifies the Church, namely, the Spirit. While affirming inseparable operations, Sherman suggests that the work uniquely ascribed to the Spirit in respect to the Church is twofold: communicating and effecting “the benefits of Christ,” and enabling, strengthening, and perfecting “the grateful human response.” (47) Next, in order to establish the relational context of God’s dealings with humanity, Sherman supplies an overview of the covenants of grace and works.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5, which concern the Church’s nature and purpose, form the nucleus, and major constructive section, of the book. These chapters, respectively, interact with three images of the Church: the body of Christ, the people of God, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Such images are “synoptic and reciprocal,” and were selected among the plentiful images that the New Testament offers based on Sherman’s belief that they are well suited to the task of tethering “ecclesiology to the Trinity and to the Church’s eschatological purpose.” (67) Along the way, Sherman, writing from an essentially Reformed standpoint, hits upon a number of significant ecclesiological subjects, including: the relationship between the Israel and the Church, the marks of the Church, the sacraments of baptism and communion, confirmation, the gifts of the Spirit, Church discipline, and the use of the law.
Chapter 6 offers a fitting bookend. While chapter 1 looked back to the ruinous fall that necessitated salvation, chapter 6 gestures toward that coming glorious consummation of God’s redemptive purposes. Between now and then, God’s people are on a pilgrimage, heading toward “that promised land which God has prepared for us since before the beginning.” (223) However, until that day of denouement comes, the Church is to exist both as a blessing, and as an instrument of blessing. On one hand, the Church is a realization of God’s purposes, and on the other, it is a means through which God is bringing about His plans.
On the whole, Sherman’s treatment of sundry ecclesiological topics here (as informed by pneumatology) is not primarily historical, philosophical, or even pragmatic, but rather, as stated earlier, biblical, theological, and pastoral. Although not aimed at the academy, this does not mean this book is unsophisticated or ill informed. Indeed, it is accessible without being anemic. A few high points are identified in what follows.
This volume is soaked in Scripture, but it never seems as if Sherman is simply using the biblical text to prop up his foregone conclusions. Rather, his engagement with Scripture is consistently nuanced and mature, astutely picking up on inter-textual connections, while seeking to rightly orient individual dogmatic loci within their broader redemptive habitat.
In an era where the Trinity has so often been co-opted as a vehicle to advance pet agendas (e.g., gender roles and local church polity), Sherman is careful to avoid this temptation. Rather, as Sherman demonstrates, the Trinity’s import upon ecclesiology is far more profound when we eschew mere utilitarian and overly speculative applications, and rather embrace “the true riches offered by life in Christ through the power of the Spirit dedicated to the Father’s eternal purposes.” (40)
This book is ecumenical in the best sense of the word. I am not referring to a brand of ecumenism that attempts to either erase or downplay the legitimate differences between those of various faith convictions. Rather, I am speaking of a charitable approach to decidedly orthodox Christian theology that does not needlessly erect divisions for sectarian or polemical purposes. Said another way, although confidently writing as a Reformed Protestant, I believe that Sherman’s work here will be of benefit to orthodox Christian believers of all backgrounds.
On the whole, Covenant, Community, and the Spirit is a satisfying exploration of and meditation on the essence and ends of the Church, approached through the lens of pneumatology, and positioned within the broader economy of God’s redemptive grace. It will challenge students and laypeople, refresh pastors, and edify all. If it sounds like I’m gushing – well it’s because I am. Although I do not agree with all of Sherman’s conclusions, his methodology and tenor are nonetheless commendable. My hope is that many will follow in the example Sherman has set here, and compose more doxologically oriented and ecumenically minded (in the sense described above) monographs like this one.
About Tim Harmon
Timothy G. Harmon is Assistant Director of the Th.M. Program at Western Seminary, and lead pastor at Northeast Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon. He is a graduate of Western Seminary (M.A.B.T.S. and Th.M.), and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in systematic theology.