A Critical Reading of Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church






We are in this contemporary culture that was preceded by the pre-modern and modern time. All the negative happenings and unfulfilled promises of the modern period gave rise to this present age. This contemporary period is characterized by disillusionment with all the harmony, truths and prosperity promised, that didn’t materialize during the modern era. According to George Weigel in his foreword to Light of the World by Benedict XVI said that:

“the Pope sees a world that has lost its story: a world in which the progress promised by the humanisms of the past centuries is now gravely threatened by understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history.” (Michael J Miller and Adrian J Walker, trans., Light of the World: the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, by Benedict XVI (California: Ignatius Press, 2010), x-xi.)

Also the contemporary man challenges the Church with her claim on absolute truths. However, the church is increasingly under pressure to be relevant andeffective in a post-modern world where the church is only one generation away from extinction. (E. Gibbs and I. Coffey, Church Next Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 10-11)

From this perspective Avery Dulles’ operational models as presented by different church traditions are evaluated in terms of their effectiveness in our contemporary period. These operational models are researched and explained as an avenue to move people beyond their own limitations and to open conversations between people with different outlooks (Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 12).

And these models need to be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness in our contemporary period; otherwise the church may become irrelevant in its approach to the post-modern man. Therefore, through a model or models of the church, methods need to be established to reach the contemporary man with the gospel.

The church is increasingly under pressure to be relevant and effective in the context of the contemporary world. Holy Mother Church must recognize that she faces a huge task as never before. This challenge must be met in this present time.

The question that the author wished to answer, relevant to this study, is: WHAT ARE THE MOST HELPFUL MODEL OR MODELS TO BE USED IN THE CONTEMPORARY WORLD BY CHURCH? This question becomes significant in the light of Pope Benedict’s assessment when he said:

“…religiosity has to regenerate itself anew in this large context – and in doing so also find new forms for its expression and comprehension…It means that we really are in an age in which a new evangelization is needed; in which the one gospel has to be proclaimed both in its great, enduring rationality and in its power that transcends rationality, so that it can reenter our thinking and understanding in a new way.” (Michael J Miller and Adrian J Walker, trans., Light of the World: the Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, by Benedict XVI (California: Ignatius Press, 2010), 135-136.)

The subject under discussion is connected with ecclesiology, and it would be a significant study if the author will be able to present which model or models of the church as introduced by Dulles to be relevant and effective in this contemporary period. To address this matter, theology enters the picture by studying the faith of the present period concerning the revelation of God and the attitude of the people towards the Catholic Church. Thus, it is the author’s intention to focus on this study.

This study will be done through literature review most especially the work of Avery Dulles titled Models of the Church published in 1987. The focus will move to the six models of the church described by Dulles. The research of these models will be mainly theoretical. The evaluation of the models will then be incorporated and compared into the contemporary world.



The aim of this chapter is to assess the theology of the church through the models of the church as considered by Dulles. He defines the mystery of the church in the following way: “In selecting the term ‘models’ rather than ‘aspects’ or ‘dimensions’ I wish to indicate my conviction that the church, like other theological realities, is a mystery. Mysteries are realities of which we cannot speak directly. If we wish to talk about them at all we must draw on analogies afforded by experience of the world. These analogies provide models. By attending to the analogies and utilizing them as models, we can indirectly grow in our understanding of the church”. (Dulles, 9)

Dulles’ aim is to enhance the readers understanding of the church. Working with different models simultaneously has this objective. He believes that the church can only exist within an organization or structure. (Dulles, 10)

Dulles makes it clear that when focusingand dealing with models, a good ecclesiologist always focuses on more than one model. Models can also be seen as a way of dealing with problems in the church. Dulles explains this: “In order to do justice to the various aspects of the church, as a complex reality, we must work simultaneously with different models. By a kind of mental juggling act, we have to keep several models in the air at once” (Dulles, 10).

One of the outstanding attributes of a model is the fact that it can be broken down into subtypes. In practice this means that models are a way of approaching theology from all directions and not only from an ecclesiologist point of view. Dulles makes this approach towards theology clear through the following words: “The method of models is applicable to the whole of theology, and not simply to ecclesiology. “(Dulles, 12).

The idea of models is to help people move beyond their own limitations when being church and to open conversation between people who have very different outlooks (Dulles, 12).



Models are used to standardize ways of measuring successes in the church. Dulles’ emphasizes the mystery of the church and causes him to criticize theologians who define the church in terms of visible elements only. (Dulles, 16).

Dulles doesn’t define the church with scientific speech and from this perspective he calls the church a mystery. “We cannot fully objectify the church because we are involved in it; we know it through a kind of inter-subjectivity. Furthermore, the church pertains to the mystery of Christ.

Christ is carrying out in the church his plan of redemption. He is dynamically at work in the church through his Spirit” (Dulles, 17). At the heart of the church, one finds mystery. Dulles makes it clear that mystery has been given many definitions from biblical and non-biblical religions. From an ecclesiological point of view as an introduction to specific models Dulles approaches mystery as God’s plan of salvation as it comes to concrete realization in the person of Jesus Christ. The mysterypar excellence is not so much God in his essential nature, or the counsels of the divine mind, but rather God’s plan of salvation as it comes to concreterealization in the person of Christ Jesus. In Christ are ‘unsearchable riches’ (Eph. 3:8); in him dwells the whole fullness of God (Col. 3:9); and this fullness is disclosed to those whose hearts are open to the Spirit which is from God (1 Cor. 2:12)” (Dulles, 17).

Dulles identifies images as positive tools to illuminate the mysteries offaith. (Dulles, 18)  Thus Dulles works with images to formulate models. Within images Dulles identifies cognate realities such as symbols, models and paradigms. Images are used for the purpose of gaining a better understanding of the mysteries of faith. Dulles also identifies these images as models. Within this understanding of models the approach is from the more visible images like temple, vine or flock to the more abstract images like institution, society or community. Thus, the aim of models is to touch and activate the whole person by influencing both themind and heart of a person. (Dulles, 21-22).

Dulles agrees that any model used in isolation will lead to distortions because each model exhibits only a particular reality given in our human experience of the world. The moment a model succeeds in dealing with a number of different problems, it becomes an object of confidence. Dulles identifies the danger of such a model being used to address questions not outside the reality of the specific model.


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