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Is "The Body of Christ" a Metaphor?

Here I just want to pose a question that I’ve reflected on for a while. In many textbooks on ecclesiology, or constructive theological ecclesiologies it’s common to organize the material in a “trinitarian” way under the rubrics of three biblical “metaphors” for the Church, namely the church as the people of God, the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Now, as a heuristic way of organizing a textbook, perhaps this has some merit, and at least some good intentions. However, I submit that this way of dicing up an ecclesiology is fundamentally flawed. I’ll leave aside for the moment the apparently modalistic mood it bestows simply by nominating three images for the church based on the three persons of the Trinity. What I find more troubling is the fact that such a heuristic presupposes that these three “metaphors” occupy the same semantic and theological universe of meaning. Why is it immediately apparent that “people of God” and “body of Christ” are in any way two members of the same semantic method of speaking about the church?

What I want to question in particular is the assumption that these three images of the church are “metaphors” as commonly conceived. Literarily speaking, a metaphor is an indirect comparison between unrelated subjects that typically uses “is ” to join the first subjects. In other words, a metaphor describes a particular subject by that which it is not. Now, surely the image of the church “the people of God” is anything but a metaphor. That comes as close to a empirical description as we’re likely to be able to produce. Similarly, “temple of the Holy Spirit” is not technically a metaphor because what that term communicates is precisely that the Holy Spirit is present, that he indwells – tabernacles in – the church-community. The Church is the place of the Spirit’s presence, and thus is literally, not metaphorically his temple.

Now, the question I really want to raise though, is in regard to the image of the church as “the body of Christ.” In Scripture, obviously this term is used for a variety of things, namely the physical human body of Jesus of Nazareth, the bread of the Eucharist, and the church-community itself. Now, the question I want to pose is simply whether or not this stream of biblical language is a metaphor or not. What does it mean to talk about the church as the “body” of Christ? Is there any real, organic, physical reality that is expressed by this image? Or is it simply a metaphor for something else? If so what is it?

What does it mean for us to call the church Christ’s body?

15 Comments

  1. Matt Shedden wrote:

    Interesting Post. I had never really thought about metaphor thing before, but I think changes a lot.

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Deep Furrows wrote:

    Acts 9:4 “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

    Fred

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Or, “Is Christ divided”? (1 Cor 1:13)

    Really makes one think, doesn’t it?

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  4. Ben wrote:

    My simple guess:

    Body of Christ = Cause we will be raised up, and were/are raised up in Christ’s bodily resurrection–because we now have that property (ressurectability) because you are what you eat, Body of Christ (Eucharist), so we know what we’re made of–Resurrection Stuff.

    The Church lives on the Eucharist, the Body of Christ (Church) is made of the Body of Christ (Eucharist).

    So, this Catholic guy here doesn’t think that Body of Christ (Church) is a metaphor at all, unless Body of Christ (Eucharist) is a metaphor–which it isn’t!

    Is Christ divided? I don’t think so. Christ prayed that they might be one. Can we frustrate God’s prayers? I don’t think so. One Eucharist, to feed all. Now, of course we can fight (Cath vs Orth vs Angl(?) vs Luth(?)) and not share, but that doesn’t make it not-real. Of course, Christ’s Body comes from the Body of Christ, so, you can’t just make your own Eucharist if you’re not in the Body of Christ, and the only way you grow into the Body of Christ is to be fed the Body of Christ from the Body of Christ. All the way back to Christ, like branches from a vine. Kinda hard just to conjure up a branch from scratch–hence apostolic succession.

    Thought provoking post, thanks!

    Monday, April 30, 2007 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  5. WTM wrote:

    Halden,

    This is a good question. If the church as the body of Christ taken in a realistic and not a metaphorical sense means something like incarnatus prolongatus, then I have to say that I think its a metaphor! If the church as the body of Christ taken in a realistic and not a metaphorical sense means something like the ‘earthly-historical form’ of Jesus, that is, the communal presence of his redemptive person and work in and through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf KB), then I can live with that. But, of course, the proponents of the first view will say that this second view is metaphorical.

    I’ve got more to say about this, but the theo-blogosphere is not that place… :-)

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 12:57 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Travis, how would you distinguish between the church as a prolongation of the incarnation and the church the ‘earthly-historical form of Jesus’? That distinction seems problematic to me. When is Jesus ever present in anything other than an ‘earthly-historical’ form? What is the substantive distinction that is being made there? How do we avoid lapsing into the problem of the logos asarkos here?

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 1:50 am | Permalink
  7. WTM wrote:

    Talking about the church as a ‘prolongation of the incarnation’ would suggest that the church has now taken the place of Jesus’ human nature and therefore exists in hypostatic union with the Logos.

    Talking about the church as Jesus’ current ‘earthly-historical form’ is not that strong. For one thing, the church does not replace Jesus Christ’s human nature, so we are one step further removed.

    In the section of CD IV/2 that I’m thinking of, Barth uses uncharacteristically strong language for all this, even speaking of an identity between Christ and the church. However, in a very telling passage, he makes an important distinction: Christ is the church, but the church is not Christ.

    The point is that the church participates in what Christ already is, and it is what Christ already is that is the decisive factor.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    “Christ is the church, but the church is not Christ.” Ok, I can accept that. In the same way I think I would say that I am my body, but my body is not me. Certainly the church does not replace Jesus humanity, but I certainly think that the church participates in it (unio mystica, of course).

    However, I’ll leave aside Barth’s position on the matter. This issue is one where I think his dialectical approach gets him in trouble. His strong langauge of identity is countermanded by an even great dichotomy between Christ and the church that I think is a major problem.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 3:14 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    But again, I’d say that to call the church the earthly-historical form of Christ is misleading. It implies that Christ has some form other than his earthly-historical reality. It’s a back door logos asarkos.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  10. WTM wrote:

    Saying that Christ has some form other than the community, even while saying that the community participates in Christ, is not leaving the door open to a logos asarkos but to the work of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit outside of the community.

    There is a formal parallel here with logos asarkos logic (which I’m not all that afraid of anyway), but it isn’t the same thing. Whatever you want to say about the hypostatic union, it remains that Christ is outside and above the church even as the church and Christ coinhere.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    I’d certainly never deny that Christ is “outside and above” the church. My beef is more with the language of the church as ‘the earthly-historical’ form of Christ. There simply is no form of Christ that is not earthly and historial!

    I’m not saying that Christ has no form other than the church, rather that in every modality of his being towards us, his form is earthly and historical. This is true of his individuated humanity as Jesus of Nazareth, his embodiment in the church-community, and his coming again in the Consummation.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  12. WTM wrote:

    Halden,

    How then do you account for the resurrection / ascension?

    It seems to me that we have to say that the primary existence of Jesus Christ no no longer ‘earthly-historical’.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Do you see the incarnation dissolving or being suspended in the resurrection/ascension? If Jesus retains his humanity then he retains that earthly-historical embodiment. I certainly don’t think that heaven is incompatible with earth or divinity with humanity.

    If the Man Jesus was raised from the dead, then it is precisely that historical-earthly person who has ascended into God’s future. I don’t see how that suspends or abolishes his particularly human existence. In fact to hold such a veiw seems very problematic.

    To be sure the quality of Jesus’ current human existence is different from ours (spiritual body vs. physical body if you will, a la Paul), but it is still a human existence and thus retaints is particularity and historicality.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  14. WTM wrote:

    Halden,

    I’m with you, and that is precisely why the church cannot be Christ’s ‘earthly-historical existence’ full stop. That is, because Jesus Christ still has his human nature / body, the church does not take its place. Thus, my speaking of the church as the ‘earthly-historical form’ of Jesus Christ means something like, through mutual coinherence, where we find the church, we find the spatial / temporal ‘place’ where Jesus is active by the Holy Spirit.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, that’s fine, it may just be a terminology issue. What I want to avoid is the idea that the church might be Christ’s presence in a crude material/historical way, while his central reality is located in some transmundane spiritual venue. Then I fear we lapse into dualism. But I know you’re not doing that.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

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