‘How do we move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the Church?’ John Webster asks in his book, Holiness (54). That the life of God and the life of the Church are intimately connected is without question, but Webster seeks clarity on that relationship, particularly given the way social trinitarianism has been used ‘for our understanding of human common life, both politically and in the Church’ (54). He writes,
The relatedness of Father, Son and Spirit is canvassed as the ground or model for the Church, and the Church is therefore conceived as the realisation in time of the human vocation to society, and so as the social extension of reconciliation through its gracious participation in the triune life of God (54-55).
While acknowledging there is much to say on this, Webster admits to two hesitations with social trinitarian theologies. The first is that it gives ‘insufficient attention to the free majesty of God’ and his perfection and sheer distinction from his creatures (55). But he continues:
A second, related, hesitation concerns the way in which such accounts of the Church’s relation to the triune life of God betray a drift into divine immanence. This can be seen in the way in which such ecclesiologies characteristically stress the continuity between the action of God and the action of the Church, in a manner which can easily jeopardise our sense of the freedom and perfection of God’s work. Such ecclesiologies can place excessive emphasis upon the Church as agent, and, correspondingly, underplay the passivity which is at the heart of the Church as a creature of divine grace. For if the being of the Church is a participation in the life of the triune divine society, then it is in the work of the Church that the work of the triune God finds its realisation, and, in an important sense, its continuation. In effect, this constitutes an orientation in ecclesiology that makes the work of the Church an actualisation of or sharing in the divine presence and action, rather than a testimony to that presence and action (55, emphasis mine).
The concern Webster has here in relation to his subject is that we do not lose sight of that fact that the holy life of the Church is entirely an act of grace, something which the ‘social trinitarian language of participation, [as it] emphasises the continuity, even coinherence, of divine and ecclesial action’, can obscure (56). Suggesting there is wisdom in continuing to speak of the Church’s sanctity as something ‘alien’, Webster concludes,
The Church is holy…not by virtue of some ontological participation in the divine holiness, but by virtue of its calling by God, its reception of the divine benefits, and its obedience in faith. Like its unity, its catholicity and its apostolicity, the Church’s holiness is that which it is by virtue of its sheer contingency upon the mercy of God (57).