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Christ as Culture: Against the Logos Asarkos

A crucial question that daunts theological engagements with culture is how it is that Christ is present to the cultures of the world. Is Christ totally removed from the cultures of the world or does he permeate them in such a way that all cultures have some level of communion with God through Christ? Such questions have been the source of much debate.

Commensurate with this question is that of how Christ is related to the church and how Christ, church, and culture are all to be configured in relation to one another. In what follows I would like to argue the following: the church as the body of Christ mediates through its own ecclesial culture, the presence and redeeming power of Christ to the world and its cultures.

Christ is present to the world precisely as the church, which is his body. With Karl Barth, we must say that there is no logos asarkos. Christ is always present to the world in his embodiment. Christ does not ever relate to the world outside of his embodiment. This is the essence of the incarnation of the Son and the centrality of the church as the body of Christ. It is essential that we affirm that the Son’s individual embodiment as a human being has ascended into heaven with the Father (however we construe the doctrine of the ascension. Thus, the question becomes, if Christ’s individuated human body is not longer present to the world, how is that he offers the world his bodily presense? The solution is to se that it is through his embodied ecclesial and sacramental body that he remains present to the world in a tangible, bodily way. This contention is, of coursed bound up with nuances of Christology that center on the perennial Reformed-Lutheran debate. As should be clear from this formulation, the model presented here owes more to the Lutheran than to the Reformed understanding of the two natures and the comunicatio idiomatum. Such issues must be acknowledged, though of course they cannot be settled here.

This notion of the church as the presence of Christ to the world of culture is certainly no small matter. Most theologians, particularly of the Reformed tradition will doubtless want to continue to advocate for Christ being present outside of his ecclesial embodiment in the world. While complicated Christological issues are at work here, the reason why such an account appears unbearably problematic is that it seems to irreducibly advocate the possibility of Christ relating to the world in a disembodied way, a de facto logos asarkos. If the church is indeed the body of Christ on earth and Christ comes to us only as the logos ensarkos, Christ must be present to the world only in a tangible and embodied way. None of this is to say that the church is identical with the person of Christ without remainder, only that it is in fact his body. The body of Christ is a culture permeating the cultures of the world. Thus, Christ himself is a culture, namely the culture embodied in the ekklesia, his body. As Robert Jenson points out, “if the church is the body of Christ, that is, if the church is the availability of Christ in and for the world, and if this body of Christ, the church is a culture, it follows that that Christ is a culture. And the sense of the ‘is’ in ‘Christ is a culture’ will be the sense that each of us must say that he or she ‘is’ his or her body.”

Such an account of Christ as the ecclesial culture being present to the world requires much more work and substantiation. The looming question is how, if at all, the cultures of the nations experience the grace of the Triune God if the church is the only embodied medium of Christ’s presence in the world. An answer may lie in a more developed trinitarian approach with emphasis on the work of the Spirit in the world in relation to Christ. Hints of this are already present in the work of Lesslie Newbigin. I think it is unproblematic to say that the Spirit is prevenient, in that the Spirit goes “in front of” Christ and the church, drawing them in his wake to follow where he leads. This is not to seperate the works of the Triune persons, only to acknowledge that the form of their indivisible activity does not prohibit ascribing particular acts to the particular persons.

While an approach such as this, which takes with absolute seriousness the nature of the church as Christ’s only embodied presence the world between ascension and parousia may appear to give license for the church to withdraw from the world, nothing should be further from the truth. Rather, since the church is the embodied presence of Christ, the church’s missional vocation must be caught up into Christ’s own pattern of self-giving service to the world’s cultures in all their brokenness and beauty, thereby participating in the missio dei and being drawn into the plenitude of God’s own trinitarian life.

The question I would put to those that have problems with an account such as this would simply be this: if Christ can be present to the world during his ascended session at the right hand of the Father outside of his ecclesial body, how do we avoid the problem of the logos asarkos? I really don’t see how we can.

8 Comments

  1. Deep Furrows wrote:

    Halden,

    I’ve been mulling over this well-thought out post. A couple of points did occur to me, however, from my perspective.

    I really love the part about Jesus being “present to the world in a tangible, bodily way” through the “ecclesial and sacramental body” that is the Church. This sensibility is very close to the experience of Fr. Giussani and Communion and Liberation (CL).

    Giussani speaks of a “physiological continuity” between Jesus and the Church. And I can see how the ecclesial and and sacramental presence of Jesus is plenary and normative, but I see no reason to exclude extrasensory meetings with Him – recognizing of course that for humans, the extrasensory is dependent upon and secondary to the sensory (Aquinas).

    St. Stephen testified to Jesus ascended and St. Paul also saw Him after the ascension – not to mention the testimony of mystics through the ages.

    Aquinas says that human knowledge begins in the senses but can transcend them – even if “man cannot be abstracted from flesh and bones.” Thus, one may even receive Holy Communion through desire alone (so long as there is something tangible that is desired).

    I wonder if the Church-and-sacrament alone position does justice to the individual person. Christ becomes flesh in the Church, in the sacraments, but also in my person – in the circumstances and events of my life. Church and sacrament are directed toward this personal transformation (a change of heart), which is the beginning of the transformation of the world.

    The term monastery comes from monos, alone. Paradoxically, the monastery is the community created when people seek Christ in solitude.

    All this being said, I am humbled by your great desire to encounter Christ in the flesh. In CL, we pray “Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam” precisely so that we don’t abstract the Logos from the man born to Mary.

    Fred

    Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Fred, thank you. That wil give me something to mull over as well. The vision of Stephen in particular is something I’ll have to reconsider.

    As to the whole issue of extrasensory meetings with Christ, I think I wouldn’t have a problem with that per se, I’d just add that I don’t see Christ as being “present” in such cases. Much in the same way as if you and I could communicate telepathically to one another over great distances. There would be a real experience of one another, but you and I would not be present to one another in any meaningful sense.

    I will have to check out Giussani, I think.

    Sunday, March 25, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  3. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    have you converted to Roman Catholicism, soteriologically (your universalist view sounds curiously like the RC view post Vatican II) and ecclisiologically, minus papal infallibility?

    Monday, March 26, 2007 at 2:15 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Good post, indeed. I think fleshing out the role of Holy Spirit is important to the overall picture here. Indeed, there is no doubt that the church must plays a central and essential mediating role as the body of Christ, in any engagement with culture. Of course, it is important to articulate the way in which the church acts, by the Spirit, in this role. How should the church dialogue with other cultures and other faiths? How can the church honestly and faithfully engage with other religions to bring about the “presence and redeeming power of Christ to the world and its cultures”?

    Monday, March 26, 2007 at 4:00 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Bobby,

    You ask:

    have you converted to Roman Catholicism, soteriologically (your universalist view sounds curiously like the RC view post Vatican II) and ecclisiologically, minus papal infallibility?

    I wouldn’t put it like that. Soteriologically, I think I remain distinct from Catholicism, though perhaps not from many Catholics, such as von Balthasar. At best, post Vatican II Catholicism is inclusivist, not universalist. In fact, any sort of strong universalism is ruled out by church teaching, if I’m not mistaken. Even Balthasar took some heat for his view of “hopeful universalism”. Essentially his argument is that all Christians should hope for the salvation of all, and that hope is a real possibility, though we can never know.

    Ecclesiologically, I think my disagreement goes deeper than papal infalibility. I retain certan free church instincts and have problems with the role that the historic episcopate plays in Catholicism. See my discussion with Ben on new monasticism if you want to know more. My disagreements with Roman Catholicism come out a bit more there.

    What in this post strikes you as particularly non-protestant?

    Monday, March 26, 2007 at 4:13 pm | Permalink
  6. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden,

    thanks. Nothing in the post, sorry I veered off the topic of the article. I’ve just been noticing that quite a few of your commenters “appear” to be Roman Catholics, which doesn’t of course make you Catholic, but it appears you have some theological solidarity with them . . . thanks for the clarification.

    I’ll have to read more on Vatican II . . . I was pretty sure Dr. Harper (and this has been yrs ago) had asserted that RCC held to an universalist view of salvation: i.e. RCC has the ultimate light, but all others have light in an refracted way, . . .

    anyway, thanks.

    Monday, March 26, 2007 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Well, I certainly won’t deny some theological solidarity there. After all, let us never forget that the Reformation was supposed to be a movement within the Catholic Church! The day that I can answer affirmatively that the Reformation is over, I will hapily be in communion with Rome! But I don’t think that day’s quite here yet. But hopefully it will come.

    But, as I’m sure any of the Catholic interlocutors here or elsewhere will insist, the RCC is not “universalist” in the normal sense of the term. Since Vatican II and particularly since John Paul II’s encyclical Dominus Iesus there has been an acknowledgement that people can possibly be saved through Christ outside of the bounds of Christianity, but that is a far cry from saying that all WILL be saved which is the universalist position.

    Monday, March 26, 2007 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  8. Freder1ck wrote:

    Halden – you may be interested in a post I’ve got up on Duns Scotus, which relates in its own way to to Logos ensarkos…

    Monday, February 4, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

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