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.