Index > Interconfessional Dialogues > R-RC > Final Report > Chapter IV

quick menu


Chapter IV. The Kingdom of God and the Church
   List of Participants

Chapter IV

The Kingdom of God and the Church

159. Our common consideration of the kingdom in Scripture and Tradition (chapter I), three narratives of common witness to the kingdom (chapter II) and principles for discerning the mandates of the kingdom (chapter III) all lead naturally and logically to the following question: what does the focused attention of Christians on the kingdom of God imply for our understanding of the nature and mission of the church? The present chapter seeks to offer a shared response to this question. First, it will indicate something of our distinct perspectives and fundamental agreement about the relation of the kingdom to the church. Then three sections will develop this theme in terms of the three fundamental ecclesial activities of worship (celebrating the kingdom), witness (by word and deed) and service (acting to influence the quality of human life here and now). Finally, our exploration of the church-kingdom relation in the current phase of Reformed-Catholic dialogue has allowed us to deepen, in a number of significant ways, some of the ecclesiological convergences that were recorded in the previous phase of dialogue between our two communities. The chapter will close with a fifth section devoted to that progress.

1. Jesus, the Kingdom and the Church

160. Jesus’ central message was the kingdom of God (see Mark 1:15). Its proclamation and establishment are the main reason for his mission (cf. Luke 4:43). Jesus himself is integrally related to the “good news”, as he declares at the very beginning of his public ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth when he applies to himself the words of Isaiah about the anointed one sent by the Spirit of the Lord (cf. Luke 4:14-21). Since the “good news” is the proclamation of the arrival of this anointed one (the Christ), there is an identification between the message and the messenger. Jesus’ power, the secret of the effectiveness of his actions, lies in his total identification with the message he announces: he proclaims the “good news” not just by what he says or does, but also by who he is. Whoever becomes involved with Jesus, becomes involved with the kingdom of God. In this context we have to understand also the coming into being of the community of disciples, rooted in Israel as God’s people, that witnesses to Jesus and his kingdom in a new way. The nature of the kingdom and its link with the church, while not a matter of disagreement for our dialogue, have been seen in different ways by our respective communities.

161. For Roman Catholics, the Second Vatican Council described the church as “the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery”.91 In the church is realized the eternal plan of the Father, manifested in Jesus Christ, to bring humanity to its eternal destiny. Here the church is seen in connection with the “bringing about of the secret hidden for ages in God”.92 Therefore the church has to be seen in this broad perspective of God’s plan of salvation, which includes all human beings and creation as a whole (see 1 Tim 2:4; Rom 8:22 ff). While Jesus’ message of the kingdom was addressed to all, his disciples were the first to receive it, but their special proximity to the kingdom did not turn them into a closed society. One of the chief temptations for the church through its history has been to over-identify itself with the kingdom. The Second Vatican Council clearly distinguished between the kingdom present in history now and its eschatological fullness still to come.93

162. There are consistent themes in the Reformed understanding of the relationship between church and kingdom. First, the Reformed emphasize the continuing role of the Bible in interpreting this relation and have attempted to structure church government through collegial and communal processes of decision-making. The Reformed also see the kingdom as a principle of critique with respect to the church and the surrounding culture. Within this common core one can find different Reformed emphases at varying times and in varying places. Some have radically separated church and kingdom, identifying the latter with the spiritual realm within. Others have practically identified the two, for example, in missionary endeavour, in the Scottish covenanting movement and in the social gospel movement. Especially in the twentieth century the kingdom of God as a theological category moved more and more into the centre of theological thinking. This growing influence underscored the way in which God’s salvation in Jesus Christ embraces our earthly reality, including its social and political aspects. However, sometimes the specific significance of the church has been neglected. The Reformed tradition sees itself as enriched by ecumenical insights and sharing life with ecumenical partners. For example, partly due to the impact of liberation theology, present-day Reformed thinking recognizes the strong theological relationship between the church and the kingdom, and the value of calling the church a sign and instrument of the kingdom. The recent report of the Pentecostal-Reformed dialogue shows a clear awareness of this link. “The church as the community of believers should be a ‘model,’ making evident – even in an inadequate way – what the future kingdom will be.”94 And again: “The Church is birthed by the Spirit and serves as an instrument of the kingdom that Jesus Christ proclaimed and inaugurated. The church is called to serve the kingdom rather than be self-serving or an end in itself.”95

163. Reformed and Catholics recognize a fundamentally shared vision of the church-kingdom relationship, even if we may continue to express ourselves theologically in different ways shaped by our traditions. Although the kingdom may not be identified with the church, that does not mean that signs of the kingdom are not present in it. They are also identifiable in creation, in history, in human society and in the world. The kingdom shows itself in society and is encountered in society, but no particular society should be identified with the kingdom. The word church does not appear often in Jesus’ teaching, which focused upon the kingdom of God. However, the concept of a messianic community is intrinsically bound up with it. Jesus gathered disciples to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to be the core of a kingdom-oriented community.

164. The idea of communion, prominent in recent ecumenical dialogue, can and should be seen as expressive of the relation between the church and the kingdom of God. Many ecumenical dialogues describe the visible unity of all Christians with the biblical term for communion – koinonia – which they understand in analogy with the Trinity, that is, not as uniformity but as unity in diversity. The fifth World Conference of the Faith and Order Commission gave the following rich description of this koinonia:

Koinonia has been the focus of our discussions. This word from the Greek New Testament describes the richness of our life together in Christ: community, communion, sharing, fellowship, participation, solidarity. […] This koinonia which we share is nothing less than the reconciling presence of the love of God. God wills unity for the church, for humanity, and for creation because God is a koinonia of love, the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This koinonia comes to us as a gift we can only accept in gratitude. Gratitude, however, is not passivity. Our koinonia is in the Holy Spirit who moves us to action. The koinonia we experience drives us to seek that visible unity which can adequately embody our koinonia with God and one another.96

As this text shows, there are profound links between communion and the kingdom of God. As “the reconciling presence of the love of God”, ecclesial communion is an expression of God’s rule. It is a gift and a task. By seeking greater visible communion, against all the stumbling blocks which stand in the way, Christians strive to respond more fully to God’s will for the complete realization of the kingdom. Ecumenical dialogue, prayer and cooperation have helped communities better appreciate the real communion they already share and to grow towards fuller communion. At the same time, such communion impels Christians to serve the kingdom of God by fostering awareness of the needs of all human beings, to explore the main causes of the brokenness of the human community – as manifest in violence, injustice and the degradation of nature – and to foster healing.

2. Celebrating the Kingdom in Worship

165. Sharing word and sacrament in the presence of the Triune God, the church discovers anew its own nature as a communion and becomes what it is: the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 2:21). Our understanding of the church can be enhanced by a closer look at the way a community celebrates the kingdom of God in its worship.

166. Decades of ecumenical dialogue have produced a strong convergence on many of the essential elements of Christian liturgy, some of which show a strong orientation towards the kingdom of God. For example, in many of our communities, after opening hymns of praise, worship will begin with an act of repentance and a declaration of pardon. We come together as sinners. We live in a world in which God’s good gifts in creation have been marred by misuse, abusive relationships, gross injustice in the distribution of wealth, and gratuitous violence. Sharing God’s forgiveness is the point of departure for all other forms of communal sharing in worship and life. In the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, the sights, sounds and fragrances of the kingdom may be discerned. Preaching in the narrative style functions in much the same way as did Jesus’ parables of the kingdom, drawing hearers into the plot and inviting them to find their place in the story. A common profession of faith, such as the Nicene Creed, reminds us of our belonging to the church of all times and of all places, now manifest in our own community. In our intercessions for the whole church and for the world we deepen our longing for the promises of the kingdom of God. Christian worship at its best is an expression of present reality transformed by God’s grace.

167. When bread and wine have been prepared, we give thanks to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit for the marvels of creation, redemption and sanctification. Corporate worship is one of the ways of expressing the conviction of the Westminster Catechism that the chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.97 Likewise, at the heart of the Catholic Eucharistic Prayers is the offering of thanks to God “for your great glory”. The liturgical celebration allows us to enter afresh into God’s saving act in Jesus Christ, whose ultimate goal is the kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 15:28). Our liturgical sacrifice of praise (cf. Heb 13:15) celebrates the sanctifying grace of God’s gift and anticipates Christ’s return in glory. We celebrate what we hope for and yet already experience: the joy of salvation.

168. In our ecumenical exchange regarding worship we have learned to see the vital importance of the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) on the community and on the elements of bread and wine. Liturgy as such is an epiklesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit, through whom the crucified and risen Christ is really present in the gathered community’s eucharistic celebration.98 In the power of the Holy Spirit and through Christ our high priest, Christians offer their prayer to the Father and, in this offering, consecrate themselves to God in the communion of the saints.

169. Prayer for the return of the Lord and the definitive manifestation of his kingdom is also a central aspect of worship. Christian liturgy invites us into a world renewed, a world that we can only hope for and yet already can experience. This is the world of God’s loving and perfect reign in a community of just and fulfilled relationships. “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’ Let everyone who listens answer ‘Come!’” (Rev 22:17).

170. The biblical witness invites us to perceive the transforming potential of Christian worship in which diversity (e.g. in terms of race, social class and gender) is honoured and yet not taken as a ground for discrimination. All are one in Christ Jesus! In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal 3:28). In the liturgical assembly, the freedom, justice and grace of Christ can be experienced and celebrated by the Christian community as newness of life in the kingdom of God. As Jesus welcomed publicans and sinners to table-fellowship during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in their prayer and praise to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now offers the grace of his presence in worship and especially in the eucharist.

171. Holy Communion especially is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom to come. It opens up the vision of the divine rule promised as the final renewal of creation. Signs of this renewal are present in the world wherever the grace of God is manifest and human beings work for justice, love and peace. The eucharist is the feast at which the church gives thanks to God for these signs and joyfully celebrates and anticipates the coming of the kingdom in Christ. So, beyond the ritual forms of liturgy and their importance for personal piety, it is the very newness of life which the Christian community experiences and celebrates (Acts 2:42-46; 1 Cor 14) that urges every Christian to make his whole life, in obedience to the new commandment of love, a continuing offering of worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23). The foretaste of the age to come sends worshippers out to the world in a spirit of loving service to all God’s people. In the Quaker phrase: “Our worship is ended, our service begins.”

172. The very fact that full communion has not yet been realized cannot but challenge us to continue our efforts to overcome this fundamental division. When Christians will finally be united around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the same cup, their missionary witness will be strengthened at both the individual and the corporate levels.

3. Witnessing to the Kingdom in Word and Deed

173. The risen Lord appears to the apostles, speaking of the kingdom of God, and promising that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (cf. Acts 1:5,8). This charge of the risen Lord is decisive for the life and witness of the church, which, from its beginning and through the ages, cannot be understood without reference to witness to the kingdom. To receive the gospel is to be called to bear witness (martyria) continually, not occasionally, to God’s will for the salvation and transformation of the world. The integrity and authenticity of the church is at stake here.

174. Seeing the church as a communion of common witness to the kingdom of God sheds new light on several ecclesiological issues. All believers are called to witness, with ordained ministers having specific responsibilities corresponding to their role within the community, so that both individually and communally, Christians participate in God’s activity in this world. In the course of history, sin repeatedly has disfigured the church’s witness and so has run counter to its true nature and vocation. The church can only rely on the faithfulness of God, who again and again offers forgiveness and calls to repentance, renewal and reform.99

175. Church witness in service to the kingdom is a multifaceted reality. (1) Primarily it occurs when the church gathers for the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. The liturgy is itself an act of confession that the kingdom has been inaugurated through the words, deeds and person of Jesus of Nazareth and that it is present even now, with a special density, in the Christian community, whose life the liturgy continually renews. (2) Another form of witness consists in the establishment of Christian communities throughout the world, communities called to demonstrate that the kingdom is present and operative even now. By concretizing in their own life justice, peace, freedom and respect for human rights, these communities can offer a countersign to society at large. (3) A third aspect of witness lies in the church’s prophetic voice, raised to criticize and energize society to transform itself along the lines of the kingdom. The Word of God will shape the way in which the church addresses the hopes and fears of humankind. Confessing Jesus Christ as Servant Lord, the church continually calls for renewal of life in culture and society, bearing witness to God’s promises and commandments to peoples, earthly principalities and powers (cf. Col 1:16 and 2:15). The advancing of justice, peace and human rights is a constitutive part of evangelization, of the announcement of the good news of the kingdom. (4) Finally, daily intercession, as repeated so often by Christians in the phrase of the Lord’s prayer – “Thy Kingdom come” – is a witness to the sovereignty of God in bringing about the transformation of the world. Jesus’ own teaching on the power of prayer inspires confidence that this request will be granted in due time according to God’s design.

176. Since witness to the kingdom of God is inspired by the gospel itself and directed towards what really determines people’s lives, taking into account particular times and contexts, it has to be concrete and contextual. But since God’s world is one and God’s kingdom is not divided against itself, witness has universal dimensions at the same time.

177. The church is called to relate the heart of the gospel – i.e. the reconciliation of humankind with God and among all people – to the specific needs of human beings and of creation itself. Such witness requires a strong personal commitment, although it transcends individual responsibilities as well. Since it also includes strong ecclesial implications for each Christian community, this challenges the autonomy of the separated churches. Costly witness calls for mutual accountability. Therefore an ecumenical approach to this mandate is a prerequisite of more effective witness. Common witness is a matter of obedience. Churches need each other, in specific local contexts as well as on a global level, to live according to God’s promises and to fulfil God’s commandments.

178. The distinction between church and kingdom has consequences for how one sees the church’s mission. This mission includes the struggle for justice, peace and the liberation of the oppressed in this world and aims towards that eschatological kingdom still to come in fullness at the end of time. Such struggle is intrinsically related to the kingdom already present and it may at times also take place within the church. Furthermore, the kingdom provides Christians with a basis for engaging in dialogue and cooperation with members of other religions. If God intends the kingdom as the ultimate goal for all humanity, then one must ask not only how other religions relate to the church but also how they relate to the kingdom. The distinction between church and kingdom thus can help us to engage fruitfully with the world and its destiny and to enter into a more open and creative dialogue with other religious traditions or secular ideologies.

179. Like the Son of Man, who came not to be served but to serve, the church exists for the praise of God and the service of the coming kingdom. Proclaiming the Gospel and establishing churches everywhere is only part of its abiding vocation to mission. Seeking dialogue and cooperation with all people of good will (who may belong to other religions and spiritual families), the church is called to manifest and foster the reign of God, signs of which can be discerned in various cultures and religions as well. Thus the church acts as the people of God among all God’s human family.

4. The Kingdom of God as a Principle of Action

180. The kingdom aims at the transformation of the whole of creation into eternal glory, and the church must be understood in the context of this divine intentionality. Citizenship in the kingdom means an ongoing summons to solidarity with people, particularly with the excluded and oppressed. The kingdom will only mean something to the multitudes that suffer when it is experienced as a transforming power. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 4:20, “For the kingdom of God consists not in talk but in power.”

181. In the Catholic Church the relationship between church and kingdom was re-evaluated at Vatican II. As a principle for action both individual and communal, the kingdom theme was most vigorously taken up after the Council, particularly by Christian communities and theologians living in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Because of their experience of oppression and abject poverty, they perceived the kingdom primarily as a catalyst for historical liberation and world-transformation. With increasing clarity it was seen that the kingdom of God belongs also to this world and not only to the world to come, is not only a gift but also a task that calls for our human cooperation, and is distinct from the church, though not fully separated from it. These aspects of the kingdom proposed an agenda for action and forged a new understanding of the church’s own identity and mission, views which were based upon the teaching of the Council itself:

The mystery of the holy Church is manifest in her very foundation, for the Lord Jesus inaugurated her by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God’s kingdom… The Church, consequently, equipped with the gifts of her Founder [...] receives the mission to proclaim and to establish among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God. She becomes on earth the initial budding forth of that kingdom (Lumen gentium 5).

182. The Reformed tradition also sees the church in the light of the kingdom. The perception of the kingdom of God as a catalyst for historical liberation – a liberation envisaged primarily in the southern part of the worldwide Christian community – finds ample recognition in the wider Reformed family. There is a strong awareness that the kingdom of God is a living reality, transcending our ecclesial structures and our theological interpretations. The way churches implement their responsibility in the world today, e.g. in their social teaching or in their diaconal activities, has relevance to the transformation of the world and to Christian unity. They are called to remain obedient to the gospel in changing situations, when giving account of the hope they proclaim. Therefore, they need to address particular questions and needs, both in acts of witness and of service. But these acts should in principle remain open to renewed consideration and further adaptation. In this ecumenical and eschatological perspective, the structures for the church’s service to the kingdom of God can benefit from critical ecumenical and theological debate.

183. Churches in the Reformed tradition have always been committed to the unity and the catholicity of the Christian Church. Because Reformed Christians do not attach ultimate authority to their own confessional history and documents, most of them see their denominational existence as historically conditioned, and thus capable of change. The founding of what is now known as the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1875 and 1891) shows how Reformed believers were – and still can be expected to be – committed to the visible, structural unity of the church, including a unity of faith, order, life and work. Churches in the Reformed family, probably more than in any other Christian World Communion, have been ready to venture into organic unions with churches from the same as well as from other families. That, however, does not mean that such organic unions can be understood as “the” Reformed answer to the question of the unity we seek. The shape, nature or form that such unity should take in the future will emerge in continuing ecumenical dialogue.

184. We should not underestimate the degree to which our different traditions find common ground in our understanding of the kingdom. We both value the kingdom of God as a catalyst for historical liberation, and we both are aware that its mystery transcends concept and history. Together we want to emphasize that Jesus did not envision the kingdom as belonging totally and exclusively to the age to come. Yet the future kingdom cannot be deduced from the circumstances of present history; it will be qualitatively new and lies beyond human planning and capability, something we can only allow to be given to us. While the kingdom theme takes the world and human effort in history seriously, it does not surrender openness to a transcendent future in the fullness of God. Only God ultimately can fulfill humankind’s deepest aspirations.

186. The kingdom of God is present among us. If we see the church in the light of the kingdom, we do so in the awareness that – whatever specific responsibility we may have within our churches – as citizens of this world we share the suffering of humankind and creation. But even if we see ourselves primarily as victims, that does not take away our responsibility. If we have to admit that we share guilt for profiting from unjust global relations, then that should inspire us even more to commit ourselves to a world that corresponds better with the characteristics of the kingdom of God. It requires receptive openness towards others, patience and resolve.

188. This dialogue intends to contribute to the renewal of the life of both our communities, by pointing to the kingdom of God as their “principle of action”. It is precisely in serving God’s transformative action in the world that the Christian community will be an authentic symbol of, and witness to, the kingdom of God.

5. Deepening our Common Understanding of the Church

189. Our previous report, Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, observed that “The two concepts, ‘the creation of the Word’ and ‘sacrament of grace,’ can in fact be seen as expressing the same instrumental reality under different aspects, as complementary to each other or as two sides of the same coin. They can also become the poles of a creative tension between our churches.”100 Can the theme of the kingdom lead to further convergence about the nature and mission of the church as creatura verbi and sacramentum gratiae? Can the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God provide perspectives for looking at the issues which our previous phase of dialogue signaled as deserving “further exploration” and offering “new challenges”?101 We conclude the present chapter by attempting to respond to these questions.

5.1. The Church as Creation of the Word and Sacrament of Grace in light of the Kingdom

190. Considered within the context of the theme of our current phase of dialogue, it seems clear that each of these two expressions conveys something about the way in which the church should serve the establishment of the kingdom of God in the world. The church is intimately related to the Word in a double sense. First, the community is created by the Word of God as it hears and responds to it. Jesus, the Word made flesh, proclaimed that the kingdom is at hand and the community of disciples is that group of human beings which, under the influence of grace, has responded in faith. Second, this response of saving faith impels them, for their part, to proclaim the Word of salvation and commissions them to witness to the kingdom values that Jesus taught. In its mission as servant to the kingdom, the church shows itself to be the creatura verbi in both of these ways.

191. At the same time, the kingdom is envisioned in Scripture as the effect of the powerful activity of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit, in history and beyond history. It is not the result of human efforts but of grace to which humans are privileged to respond. To the extent that the church is an instrument intended by God to serve in bringing about the kingdom, it must then be an instrument of grace, which is what is meant by the expression sacramentum gratiae. The transformation of the world occurs in part through efforts to create a more just and peaceful society. But Christians also believe that this transformation is realized now, in an anticipatory way, in that communion between God and human beings which takes place in the church, especially through the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and eucharist and other sacraments or rites. As sacrament of the kingdom, the church is and must be both creation of the Word and sacrament of grace.

192. Our exploration of the patristic literature also underscored this fact. While we did not uncover patristic writings making use of the precise phrases creatura verbi and sacramentum gratiae, patristic authors do emphatically relate the church to the Word and to the grace of God. The discernment of the canon of the Scripture, the massive presence of commentaries on the individual books of the Bible and the recourse to Scripture in doctrinal treatises and magisterial decisions (which, by rejecting certain heresies, illustrated the need for the church to discern the adequacy of interpretations of the Scripture) are all relevant to the vision of the church as creatura verbi. In this sense, the early Christian writers would certainly have considered the church to be a “creation of the Word of God”, even if they never used the expression. In a similar way, texts from the patristic era about baptism, the eucharist and other ecclesial rites – both those by individual authors and, perhaps even more significantly, those preserved in liturgical books – surely are relevant to the understanding of the church as sacramentum gratiae. In this regard, perhaps no other patristic writings are as impressive as those “mystagogical catecheses”, in which bishops instructed newly baptized Christians during the week after Easter. In this sense, early Christian writers would surely have considered the church to be a “sacrament of grace”, because the grace of the Holy Spirit is always operating and constitutive in the proclamation of the Word and in the celebration of these rites. A church without a strong sacramental celebration of the gift of grace could not be the church of Christ as they knew it.

193. According to Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, these are “two different concepts for understanding the church and the way in which it fulfils its ministerial and instrumental role, the first, more ‘Reformed,’ the second, more ‘Roman Catholic’” (94). Paragraph 108 goes on to state that the church is an instrument “through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments and the oversight of communities.” We can now affirm, in light of our investigation both of the kingdom and of the patristic literature, not only that these visions are mutually informative and complementary but also that neither is fully adequate without the other. A “sacramental” church that does not give proper place to the Word of God would be essentially incomplete; a church that is truly a creation of the Word will celebrate that Word liturgically and sacramentally. If our churches differ according to these two visions, perhaps it is less because either church is convinced that the church is only creatura verbi or only sacramentum gratiae and more because each tradition has emphasized one aspect to the point of de-emphasizing or neglecting the other. In such a case, arriving at full communion will amount to a process in which each community recovers the full scope of God’s provision for the life of the church. A further question which arises at this point and which would need further exploration in future dialogue is the relation of ordained ministry to the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments.

5.2. The Church in Relation to the Holy Spirit and Eschatology

194. In reflecting upon what our communities could say together about the way in which the church “fulfills its ministerial and instrumental role,” the previous dialogue report mentioned the possibility of describing the church as “sacrament of the kingdom of God.”102 Reformed Christians can affirm the concept of church as sacrament in following Calvin’s teaching about the instrumental role of the church as our “mother in faith”.103 In Roman Catholic teaching, calling the church a “sacrament” is based upon two analogies: that between the church and Christ and that between the church and the rites of baptism and eucharist. Both of our communities affirm that Christ’s action is the foundation of human salvation; sacraments and other rites are vehicles of the unique grace of God mediated ultimately by Christ alone. Just as Christ’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, are instrumental in bringing to realization God’s plan of salvation, so in an analogous way the church is a “visible sign and instrument of the unique mediation [of Christ] across time and space…. an instrument in Christ’s hands…. entirely dependent on the Lord, just like a tool in the hand of a worker.”104 When Reformed Christians traditionally considered any role of the church in mediating Christ’s salvation, they always tried to safeguard the total sufficiency of his “once for all” self offering (cf. Heb 7:27) and of the Spirit’s freedom in graciously bestowing Christ’s benefits upon human beings. Such radical dependence is also a major aspect of Roman Catholic reflection on the nature of sacraments and the analogous application of the word “sacrament” to the church. Complete dependence on Christ through the Spirit thus is acknowledged by our present dialogue. We note that an exclusively christological framework would not allow for uncovering and expressing all that we can affirm together about this theme. Our present report, focusing as it does on common witness to the kingdom, led us inevitably to consider the church in relation to the Holy Spirit and to eschatology.105 Both of these relations open up the possibility of extending what we might now say together about the church as “sacrament of the kingdom of God.”

195. The Holy Spirit actualizes Christ’s work of redemption in the hearts of individuals by bringing about their conversion and regeneration. As such, the Spirit is a principal agent in establishing the kingdom and in guiding the church so that it can be a servant of God’s work in this process (chapter I). It is the Spirit who plays the decisive role in leading believers to discern what they should do to serve the fuller realization of the kingdom in particular situations (chapter III). Relating the kingdom instrumentality of the church to the Holy Spirit allows us to acknowledge together a more historical and dynamic vision of the church as “sacrament of the kingdom of God”. The Spirit is the basis both of the efficacy of Word and sacrament, and of the emerging presence of the reign of God. Our previous report did refer to the Holy Spirit, reflecting both the “more Reformed” emphasis upon the freedom of the Spirit and the “more Roman Catholic” appreciation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the historical existence of the Christian community. When we consider the role of the Spirit in relation to the kingdom, it becomes clear that these two confessional perspectives require one another and are complementary and mutually informative. The Spirit who blows freely […] (cf. John 3:8) also guides and equips the community of faith (cf. John 16:13,14; 1 Cor 12:4-13). In bringing about the kingdom, the Spirit works in such a way as to include people, both within and outside of the church, making use of whatever capacities and limitations they have.

196. Our discussion of the kingdom during this phase of Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue also naturally focused attention upon the theme of eschatology (chapter I). Our previous report noted: “We do not think in the same way about the relation of the church to the kingdom of God. The Reformed insist more on the promise of a ‘not-yet’; Catholics underline more the reality of a gift ‘already-there.’”106 The present dialogue has shown that both Scripture and tradition hold these two perspectives together, so that our earlier contrast needs to be seen more as a difference in accent than a church-dividing opposition. We fully agree that the church lives in an eschatological perspective and that it is not possible to grasp its identity except within the framework of a shared openness to the work of the Spirit in history, even in our own days. This requires attending to the “signs of the times” and to fresh opportunities for common witness. The distinction between the church and the kingdom allows for a more common vision of history. What we shall be has not yet fully been revealed (1 John 3:2; cf. 1 Cor 13:12). This means that the present age is still on the way to the perfect realization of God’s plan of salvation that will occur with the full coming of the kingdom. Church history is complex and, as our previous report noted in its reflection upon the “healing of memories,” can be interpreted in various ways. Sometimes it gives evidence of inspirational continuity with the Gospel, but it also includes the enigma of division and discontinuity. We dare to believe that even in the most regrettable moments of this history God’s Spirit was at work for good (cf. Rom 8:28). This can never mean that human failure is turned into divine virtue. It provides, however, an appropriate basis for understanding the nature of sinful division and enmity in the church. Thus we are called to conversion and renewal, receptive to the ongoing work in history of the Holy Spirit, whose “unifying power must prove stronger than all the separation that has occurred through our human sinfulness”.107

197. Through exploring the theme of common witness to the kingdom, Reformed and Catholics have thus been able to discover a further fundamental agreement about the church. We can affirm that the church is a kind of sacrament of the kingdom of God, with a genuine role of mediation, but only in so far as it is utterly dependent upon God. Our agreement about the church’s dependence upon God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit gives hope that we have also made some progress in opening the way for greater convergence. By speaking about the church as “sacrament of the kingdom of God” past tensions regarding differing convictions about the continuity, ministry and order of the church through the ages may prove to be complementary and even creative in shared reconstruction. We hope that our articulation of the church’s ministerial and instrumental role, in total dependence on the Spirit of Christ and directed toward God’s kingdom, can make a contribution to Christian unity that reaches beyond our own communities. The ecumenical movement as a whole may be understood as participation in the movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls and inspires us to seek the kingdom of God together, and to commit ourselves to one another. If churches find new ways to give shape to this mutual support and accountability, then we pray that the result will be greater visibility for the church as sign and instrument of God’s kingdom.



  1. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 3; see also http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/index.htm.

    Back to text


  2. Col 1:26; see Eph 3:3-9; 1 Cor 2:6-10.

    Back to text


  3. Cf. “From this source the Church (…) receives the mission to proclaim and to spread among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God and to be, on earth, the initial budding forth of that kingdom. While it slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed kingdom and, with all its strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with its King” (LG 5). The same distinction is to be found in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio (=RM, 15 and 18), the Document Dialogue and Proclamation (=DP, 35, cf. 59), and the Declaration Dominus Iesus (=DI, 19).

    Back to text


  4. Final Report of the International Dialogue between Representatives of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and Some Classical Pentecostal Churches and Leaders, Word and Spirit, Church and World (2000), para. 59.

    Back to text


  5. Ibid., para. 79.

    Back to text


  6. Message of the World Conference, para. 4, in: T. Best, G. Gassmann, On the Way to Fuller Koinonia, Faith and Order Paper No. 166, (Geneva, 1994), 225-226.

    Back to text


  7. Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1. The Westminster Assembly was summoned by the English Parliament in 1643. The Westminster Confession of Faith was completed in December, 1646. The Shorter Westminster Catechism, intended for the instruction of children, and the Larger Westminster Catechism, intended for pulpit exposition, were completed in 1647 and 1648 respectively. These “Westminster Standards” function as official standards of doctrine in many denominations today within the Reformed tradition.

    Back to text


  8. Whether the presence of the risen Lord in the eucharist is located in the community, in its liturgical action, in the elements of bread and wine or in any combination of these is not yet a matter of full agreement between our communities and therefore remains an issue before our ongoing dialogue.

    Back to text


  9. The Nature and Mission of the Church – A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement, Geneva, World Council of Churches, 2005, para. 54.

    Back to text


  10. Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 113.

    Back to text


  11. Ibid., para. 138.

    Back to text


  12. Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 94 and 111.

    Back to text


  13. “There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, nourish us at her breast, and, lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off this mortal flesh, we become like angels.” Institute of the Christian Religion, (IV.1.4).

    Back to text


  14. Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 108.

    Back to text


  15. See chapter I, section 1.5 and chapter III, section 1 on the Holy Spirit and chapter I, section 1.3 on eschatology.

    Back to text


  16. Towards a Common Understanding of the Church, para. 122.

    Back to text


  17. Ibid., para. 146.

    Back to text


Index | Centro Activities | Course | Publications | Conferences
Week of Prayer | Library | Interconfessional Dialogues
Directory of Ecumenical Study Centers | Society of the Atonement
Guest Book | Credits | Site Map

1999-2008 © - Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, Inc.
Remarks to Webmaster at webmaster@pro.urbe.it