Henri Blocher on Rome

March 25, 2024 blog post by Dr. Leonardo De Chirico share this article:

Opening a book by the Parisian theologian Henri Blocher is like being invited to a wedding banquet. It is a theologically and culturally rich, tasty and challenging experience. The publication of his latest book, La doctrine de l’Église et des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), is a feast for theology, all the more so because this volume on ecclesiology was long awaited. (And we are still waiting for the second volume on the sacraments.)

The book consists of two parts. In the first, Blocher expounds the biblical data, while in the second he analyses three types of church conceptions and models: the Catholic, the Reformed (paedobaptist) and the Confessing (credobaptist). This blog post will gloss over much of the book in order to focus on the section regarding Roman Catholic ecclesiology.

Blocher (1937, chair of FEET 2002–2008) does not enter the conversation as a novice. In his long theological career, he has participated in international and national (French) dialogues between Catholic and evangelical theologians. He was among the leading architects of the 1986 World Evangelical Fellowship (now Alliance) “Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective”, edited by Paul G. Schrotenboer (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), which contains a solid evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. In this section of his book, Blocher offers a thoughtful theological analysis that is the fruit of a lifetime of study and interactions with Roman Catholic theology.

Methodologically, in addition to Roman Catholic magisterial texts (above all Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium), Blocher constantly interacts with Yves Congar (“a theologian of exceptional breadth and finesse”, 108), Avery Dulles, Henri De Lubac, Bernard Sesboüé and Walter Kasper. These authors have provided the best and most representative Roman Catholic ecclesiological reflection since the Second Vatican Council. In the background, there is a constant focus on Thomas Aquinas, who “embodies the Catholic option in theology” par excellence (109). Among evangelical authors, Blocher acknowledges a particular debt to Alain Nisus (7), the author of L’Église comme communion et comme institution. Une lecture de l’ecclésiologie du cardinal Congar à partir de la tradition des Églises de professants (Paris: Cerf, 2012), which he calls a “fundamental work” (108 n. 2). In the Protestant camp, Blocher treats the work of Vittorio Subilia, e.g. The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM, 1964) and Le Nouveau Visage du Catholicisme (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1968) with great respect as it expounds an “in depth critique of conservative Barthian inspiration” (105). Blocher reads Subilia’s interpretation of Roman Catholicism very carefully and generally approvingly, except to point out that for the Italian Waldensian theologian, his rejection of Catholic temple theology also means the Barthian rejection of the “deposit” of biblical revelation (150-151). For Blocher, the restlessness of dialectical theology concerning the inspired status of Scripture is not the evangelical position: while the latter criticises the Roman Catholic reconstruction of the temple system (with its sacerdotalism, ritualism and church mediation), it receives the Bible as the written Word of God, the stable and reliable record of divine Revelation.

Blocher’s analysis of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is well-ordered. First, he focuses on its “heart”, that is, the conception of the church as a “continuation of the Incarnation” in its various articulations (body of Christ, mystery, sacrament, church and Mary). He then dwells on the “main dualities” present in Catholic ecclesiology (institution and community, pilgrimage and glory, church and society). Thirdly, he suggests four critical remarks that summarise an evangelical evaluation: 1) the exaltation of the human, 2) the attack on God’s rights, 3) the monophysite temptation, and 4) the weakening of the significance of the biblical “once-and-for-all”.

With his style and finesse, Henri Blocher has enriched contemporary evangelical theology with a contribution that lives up to his reputation.

P.S. A longer review can be read here.

Leonardo De Chirico, Rome

Dr. Leonardo De Chirico