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Barth and de Lubac on the Church

The following sections are just a couple fragments from an essay I recently finished for an advanced ecclesiology seminar. In the paper I engage the ecclesiologies of Henri de Lubac and Karl Barth and try to show how both offer mutual correctives toward constructing an ecclesiology that is both Christological and Logocentric (Barth) and sacramental, Trinitarian, and participatory (de Lubac). Your comments are welcome.


In light of the contributions of the ecclesiology Barth and de Lubac it is necessary to explore the relationship between the divine action of God in Christ the Logos and the ongoing action of the embodied soma of Christ, the church. Barth teaches us that the divine Word must in some sense be a genuine novum which is external and unprecedented. De Lubac, however challenges us to explore more deeply the expansive gratuitous nature of divine action which not only precedes but also includes and incorporates the response of the church into its triune movement.

What is central to properly explicating an ecclesial perspective that is informed by Barth and de Lubac is to note the different ways in which they construe the shape of redemption. For Barth, redemption is a matter of the restitution and restoration of the relation between humanity and God that has been disrupted by sin. [1] For Barth, the essence of redemption is ultimately a restoration of created humanity to its proper vocation as revealed in Christ, the true human. The church then is given the role of bearing witness to this reality.

For de Lubac, however there is no such thing as “pure nature” and that the grace of God is ubiquitous, orienting all creation toward its telos which is communion with the triune God whether it rejects that vocation or not.[2] Thus, the church is the place where that communion is realized in anticipatory form. The church then is the reality of redemption taking shape in the world. For de Lubac, in contrast to Barth the church is not instrumental to God’s purpose of redeeming the world, rather the world is instrumental to God’s purpose of fashioning a body and bride for his Son. Simon Chan’s contention accords with de Lubac’s, “The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church.”[3]

What is clearly central to properly exploring the dramatic interplay between divine and ecclesial action involves negotiating the trinitarian and ecclesial issues that Barth and de Lubac address differently. Ultimately, I contend that de Lubac needs to be informed by Barth’s christocentricism while Barth’s understanding of the ontological discontinuity between nature and grace and divine and human action needs to be corrected by de Lubac’s understanding of the ubiquity of grace and the expansive and non-competitive nature of divine action.

[1] CD IV/1, 22; 36. Cf. Bender, Karl Barth’s Christological Ecclesiology, 130-131.

[2] Brief mention should be made of de Lubac’s definition of grace. While his exact definition is not entirely clear, his emphasis throughout is that grace is God’s complete gift of himself through the Spirit to the church. Clearly for him this is experienced most intensely in the Eucharist, though de Lubac speaks only rarely of infusion. Rather the emphasis is on the relationality of grace as the love of God which makes peace between humankind and God and between human persons. See A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace, 119-121; 132-137.

[3] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshipping Community (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 23.


The Word and sacraments are at once the divine verbum externum (vera visibli) and the gratuitous inhabitatio dei. They are the sovereign work of God extra nos and simultaneously the divine condescension en nobis. This is to appropriate the best insights of Barth and de Lubac in the construction of a truly theological ontology. Thus, the church bears witness to and corresponds to Christ (Barth) because as his body she stands in contiguous relation to the head, thus participating in the reality of his hypostatic person and thus in the triune life of God (de Lubac). The church and Christ exist as one body in contiguous relation, intimately connected, yet distinct.[1] Therefore, through the sacramental base-practices of the church the Son and Spirit continually actualize the reality of divine-human communion as the church, the totus Christus participates and is transformed in and through the depths of the triune love mediated therein. The sacramental mediation of the church is indeed an extension of the soteriological mediation of the Son, but the church is only that extension in the mode of pathos, of receptivity, humility, and poverty before the sheer gratuity of God’s action pro nobis in the cross and resurrection of Christ.[2] Thus, the expansive and ubiquitous outpouring of the pneumatic love of God in and as the totus Christus draws the entire creation into the ecclesial communio such that in the eschaton all things are found within the infinite communio that is the Trinity.

The church then in its practice of proclaiming the Word and celebrating the sacraments participates in and extends the movement of the Trinity into the world. Not in any way because of what she is in herself, for in herself she is nothing. But rather because of the gracious outpouring of the love of God by the Holy Spirit which enflames and enlivens, drawing the church into the expansive movement of God into the world. For God’s saving action in the world is not static, but gratuitous and infinitely expansive. Thus, through Christ and the Spirit God “makes room” for the church within his action for the salvation of the world, allows us at once participation in his eternal communion and participation in his trinitarian mission to drawn all persons into sacramental, spousal communion with God in the ecclesial communion.[3]

[1] Contiguity here refers to a deep connection based on proximity and interpenetration. Thus, to borrow an analogy from biology (which is strikingly appropriate) the brain is contiguous to the spinal column and the spine is contiguous to the pelvis.

[2] See Hütter, Suffering Divine Things, 115-128 and de Lubac, Catholicism, 225-226.

[3] See Schindler, Heart of the World, 20-23.


  1. Anonymous wrote:


    thanks for this post. Have you looked at Joseph Mangina’s book on Barth from Ashgate (WJK in North America)? He places Barth in dialogue with De Lubac on ecclesiology. A very profitable discussion.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog.


    Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 2:25 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Is that the Ecclesial Mediation book? If so I have not yet. Thank you, that’s very good to know!

    Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

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