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The Church and Participation in God

D.W. Congdon at The Fire and the Rose has recently published an excellent series of theses on Divine Passibility with which I am in almost unqualified agreement. However, in his final thesis he makes this remark:

“The church is not the continuation of Christ’s incarnation on earth, because the incarnation is an event that cannot be liquified or dissolved. Christ is not resolvable into the church, nor is the church anything more than a creaturely community constituted by the Word to be God’s faithful witnesses. The church participates in the life of God only insofar as it participates in the concrete history of Jesus Christ as the creaturely community sanctified by the Spirit for the purpose of corresponding to God. God does not suffer through the community, because the church and God are not ontologically united but at best ontologically analogous; and even then the communio sanctorum is never established as God’s analogue but remains dependent upon God’s grace through the agency of the Spirit who alone constitutes a gathering as the people of God.”

Now, David and I have had numerous stimulating conversations on the nature of divine-human communion, particularly as it relates to the question of creaturely participation in the life of God. If I may be permitted to caricaturize our discussion, I would say that his instincts are much more Reformed while mine are somewhat more Catholic and Anabaptist.

While I could probably affirm most of what David says here, particularly agreeing that we only participate in the life of God through the concrete history of Jesus, and that we are always dependent on God’s grace to be constituted as the body of Christ, I am very reticent to speak of the church as nothing more than a witness to God’s action, though it is certainly not less than that. Such a characterization seems to nullify the realism of divine-human communion through Christ and the Spirit. For, if Christ and the Spirit are not external, but internal to the Trinitarian life, and if God’s being pro nobis is indistinguishable from is being pro se, then to be “in the Spirit” or “in Christ” is to be drawn (passively) into the the internal Triune relations which involves some sort of ontological communion and union, though the shape of that union never nullifies our creaturliness and finitude.

My point in saying all this, is not primarily to initiate further debate with David over this issue, though I’m sure it will make for an interesting discussion, but rather to give me an excuse to post this excellent quote from Thomas Torrance’s The Christian Doctrine of God, which I think summarizes beautifully what the church’s participation in the Trinitarian life of God means.

“Thus, in establishing his relations with us in the Spirit, God upholds us from below and sustains us from within, and brings us as a people whom he has made for himself to our true end in communion with himself, and thereby makes us participate in his own eternal life.

On the one hand, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit along with the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity imports and openness on the part of God in which in virtue of the inherent movement of his own eternal Being he is free to relate himself to what is not himself and to become open to created realities beyond himself. On the other hand, the presence of the Holy Spirit to the creation imports an openness on the part of God’s creation toward himself, for through the Spirit God is able to be present within them in such a way as to lift them up to the level of participation in God where they are opened out for union and communion with God far beyond the limits of their creaturely existence. To be ‘in the Spirit’ is to be in God, for the Spirit is not external, but internal to the Godhead. But since only the Spirit of God who knows what is in god and it is he who unites us to the Son of God in his oneness with the Father, through the communion of the Spirit we are exalted to know God in his inner trinitarian relations as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When this actually takes place, however, we are restrained by the sheer Holiness and Majesty of the divine Being from transgressing the bounds of our creaturely being by inquiring beyond what is given through the Son and received in the Spirit, and therefore from intruding upon the mystery of God or thinking presuptuously or illegitimately of him. When God is present to us in his Holy Spirit we are on holy ground like Moses at the Burning Bush where he was bidden to take the shoes off his feet. Before the Face of God we are constrained by the Holy Spirit to think of him only in a reverent and godly way worthy of him, in which worship, wonder and silence inform the movement of our creaturely spirits to the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, answering to the movement on God’s part from the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit.” (p. 153.)

This, I think, encapsulates how we should think about what it means to participate as God’s creatures in his very trinitarian life. Such a perspective spurs us on to creaturely humility and worship and invites us to enter the hope of communion with Godself and participation in the Triune relation which is proleptically realized in the church, the sanctorum communio.


  1. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Glad to see you have returned to the blogosphere. I find it fascinating that I come across as “Reformed” from your perspective, but as “Lutheran” from the perspective of some here at PTS. This suits me perfectly, and it represents my two theological “mentors”: Barth and Jüngel.

    Your post is well-stated, and I like the doxological shape to your thought. And I also admire Torrance greatly. That said, Torrance and I do not mean the same thing by the word participation. I, following McCormack, see participation as occurring ‘there and then’ in my election in Jesus Christ. In my subjective realization of this relation, I participate in Christ’s history. Torrance, however, uses participation to mean ‘union with God,’ which is a ‘here and now’ reality in which we are taken up into the life of the triune God. I find this to be beautiful, but wishful thinking. Torrance, it seems, has an over-actualized eschatology that wants to see the church now as already fully participating in the eschatological consummation of creation. I think we are much better off siding with Jüngel and simply asserting our being brought into analogical correspondence with God. This correspondence is actual and ontological, but it is not a ‘union’ with God; it remains an analogous relation that awaits completion in the eschaton.

    As you already know, though, my Reformed instincts are kicking in. If I have to choose between Torrance on the church and Webster on the church, I choose Webster. His seems to uphold the ontological difference between God and humanity and the centrality of Christ more carefully than Torrance, who seems too quick to speak rhetorically of union, triune life, participation, worship, and communion. These are all great concepts, but Torrance is not careful enough when he uses them.

    That said, I appreciate the dialogue and the quote. Torrance’s book on the Trinity is without equal.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006 at 2:43 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    A couple of points in response. First, I think for Torrance the ‘there and then’ and the ‘here and now’ can’t be divorced from one another. He takes much from Barth, Calvin and McKintosh on these points and for him, our participation is grounded in the work of Christ ‘then’, which has everything to do with election. However, because of the Holy Spirit’s work of bringing us into relationship with Christ through his work ‘then’ we are ‘now’ drawn into God’s life.

    As to the matter of rhetoric, I think that objection might dodge the substance of Torrance’s arguement. What is central is the fact that we are, through Christ and the Spirit brought into a relationship of communion with God in the ‘here and now’. Given that who God is toward us in the economy of salvation is identical with who he is in his eternal triune life, and given that Christ and the Spirit are not external, but internal to the Godhead, we must, by definition be said to in some way participate in the trinitarian relationships by virtue of being in Christ and in the Spirit.

    Also, it could just as easily be aruged that Webster, McCormack, et al have an under-realized eschatology as opposed to Torrance having an over-realized one. To my mind Webster and McCormick end up denying that the church presently has any sort of ontological relationship with God in the interest of distinguishing between God and creation. I think Torrance does far better by showing how the shape of our participation in God is doxological, thus preserving our creaturehood and our humility before God, even as we are drawn into his triune life.

    In the end I’d definately side with Torrance over Webster on the church. You know some of my criticisms of Webster, so I won’t bother with that. But, at the end of the day I think he takes a good concern (distinguishing between divine and human action, God and creation) and ends up being far to conservative with it and thus eviscerating the realism of divine-human communion and risks ecclesiological occasionalism.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Guy wrote:

    Halden, I am in Portland for a few days and was wondering if we could grab coffee or something. I don’t have your contact info, but if you could contact me 423-605-3199, we’re friends. :) I’m staying at the Portland NW Hostel. Thanks!

    Friday, August 18, 2006 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  4. D.W. Congdon wrote:


    What do you mean when you say that the “shape of our participation in God is doxological”? How exactly do you conceive of participation in the triune life? How does the creaturely community of the Word participate in the divine life? How is that ontological divine bridged? And what exactly do you gain by speaking of our present participation in God? How does this preserve the restoration which we await in the eschatological remaking of all things?

    I think, when it comes down to it, that McCormack, Webster, and Jüngel simply have a more critically realistic understanding of our relation to God’s being. McCormack speaks of an actualized ontology (I’ll send his article on participation if you’re interested), Webster speaks of our communal-covenant fellowship of the church, and Jüngel speaks of our analogous correspondence to God, in which our being is not brought up into God’s being but rather is conformed to the person of Christ — but in a way that remains analogous and awaits eschatological fulfilment.

    Torrance, in my estimation, is a great theologian, but he thinks of participation along the lines of “union,” which is a category I think needs to be defended first rather than used flippantly, as he often seems to do.

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

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