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Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age.

Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age. By Gordon W. Lathrop and Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004. 180 pages. Paper. $18.00.

In this book Lutheran historian Wengert and liturgist Lathrop ask: How do you know the Christian church when you encounter it? What are its marks? They use the idea of "the marks of the church" (notae ecclesiae) to address this question. This is primarily a book about ecclesiology, alternating analysis of early Lutheran theology with contemporary social and congregational analysis.

The authors begin with a study of "assembly" (ecclesia) that allows them to raise the question of the origins of the marks of the church. Readers may be surprised to find that the terms in the Nicene Creed (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) were not designated as "marks" until well after the start of the Reformation. The authors appraise a range of other proposed marks, which are identified through liturgical, historical, and contemporary discussions. They warn against the dangers of a "bowling alone" ecclesiology common in many American churches and offer instead a range of models and typologies that avoid either a single "one size fits all" solution or a "choose your own" ecclesiology.

The authors seem to struggle to locate the reason for the popularity of the idea of "marks." My hunch is that because Calvinists added a mark (discipline) to two of Luther's most popular constituents of the church (proclamation of the word and administration of the sacraments) they were important in the development of the idea of marks. Besides a wider ecumenical analysis, it might also have been interesting to hear more about contemporary understandings of the marks. For instance, Karl Barth has commended "apostolicity" as the sole mark of the church. However, the authors have understandably tended to emphasize Lutheran-Catholic conversations more, and this is an important contribution.

Ultimately, the chief value of this book is in raising the questions asked at the outset. By rooting their answers within the context of Lutheran tradition, the authors offer a pastoral reflection on how we might recognize the church when we see it. Lathrop and Wengert provide no simple formula but rather a range of classical and contemporary conceptions that might guide us as we think about what the church is.

Jonathan A. Seitz

Princeton Theological Seminary
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Author:Seitz, Jonathan A.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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