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The organic body?

The notion of the body of Christ seems to point towards and organic connection between Christ and the members of the church as constituting some sort of monopersonal identity. The notion of a body and its members seems to imply such a relation of organic oneness. However, this is not necessarily the case, and Paul’s language 1 Corinthians actually doesn’t seem to lend itself in this direction.

As Volf observes, the need to view the metaphor of the body organically is bound to understanding the metaphor exclusively through physicality. Thus, “if the physical nature of the body is eliminated, then the idea of the body no longer contains its organic character.” Here Volf cites Robert Gundry’s critique of J.A.T. Roberson who argues that the body of Christ in Paul must be understood in a non-physical manner. Thus, as Paul argues, “the Christian is ‘one spirit with” the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17), and precisely as such is a part of his ‘body.’” The nature of the body of Christ is profoundly qualified by the role of the Holy Spirit who brings about a miraculous spiritual union between persons bound together in relation to Christ.

So what then does the language of the body of Christ express then if not a physical, monopersonal identity? According to Volf, it expresses

certain soteriological and strictly ecclesiological relations that shape the very being of Christians; it stands for an inward and personal communion in the Holy Spirit between Christ and Christians (see 1 Cor. 6:17) or between Christ and the church (see Eph 5:22-33), and thereby also between Christians themselves (see Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:14-26). Precisely this metaphorical usage makes it possible for every local church to be called “the body of Christ” in an original sense. (p. 142)

This is not to say that the metaphor does not use organic or physical language, only to observe that what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church. Rather, the imagery, taken in the context of 1 Corinthians as a whole, speaks to the radical and intimate nature of the Spirit’s interpersonal indwelling of all Christians and the church as a whole which unites the church with Christ in a dynamic interpersonal relationship.


  1. I think this moves to quickly and overlook salient feature of Paul’s text in 1 Corinthians. Volf is already coming at this from a free church perspective so of course the individual is first and the communal is second. But does the Spirit’s involvement really hold separate the church and Christ as merely a “dynamic interpresoanl relationship”? It seems in 2:16, after the first introduction of the Spirit in 1 Cor, and a polemic at that against the Wisdom of the Corinthians, that Paul concludes, “We have the mind of Christ.”

    what ever the work of the Spirit might be, it seems to be intimately connected with the person of Christ, and us to him. See also 2 Cor. 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I think dismissing someone because they are free church is just as much of a mistake as dismissing someone because they are Catholic.

    That said I don’t really disagree with anything you say here, except to point out that there’s no need to construe “dynamic interpersonal relationship” as some sort of extrinsicism. Volf is very clear that this is not the case. Rather the nature of the relationship between the church, the Spirit, and Christ is one of indwelling. So of course there’s an intimate connection between the work of the Spirit and the Person of Christ. There could be nothing more intimate than that connection! But that doesn’t quite get me to the notion that the church and Christ are to be construed as having some sort of shared subjectivity.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 6:10 am | Permalink
  3. Thomas wrote:

    What exactly do you mean by “monopersonal”, and what does the “mono-” add? I’m not sure that’s what anyone is advocating. It certainly doesn’t mean that there is no distinction made between God and creation, and although it points (perhaps vaguely) to a participatory model whereby the created participates in the uncreated the language inherently contains a distinction between the two.

    I know your series is on the Church as the body of Christ specifically, but I think some of your concerns in the ongoing debate may come from taking the Catholic view of the body of Christ analogy without balancing it against the other ways of understanding the church, such as the bridegroom-bride imagery, which the Catechism is careful to do.

    Even if we ignore that for a moment, I don’t think anyone is saying that we should understand the Church as the body of Christ in an exclusively physical way; rather that there is a physical aspect to the church being the body of Christ. This does not have to mean that “body” as a human body and “body” the church must be understood as corresponding univocally, but it definitely does mean that “body” isn’t an empty signifier of a totally spiritual reality. It’s not completely fair of me to criticize the theologians above, as I haven’t read them, but there seems to be a desire to partition off the spiritual from the bodily. The idea that the organic belongs entirely to the body signifies a dualism I’d want to avoid.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink
  4. Chris Donato wrote:

    I think what’s missing in all this, especially since the Catholic Catechism has been referenced with its allusions to traditional Catholic thinkers, is the awareness that the starting point for both opinions expressed thus far share the same starting point: a figurative—metaphorical and collective—view of the body of Christ (traditionally, for Catholics, the locus of this union as the body of Christ is in its sharing in the divine-human nature of Christ via the Eucharist; for Prots, the locus is the body’s pneumatic mode of existence, which Volf above illustrates nicely).

    It’s incorrect to saddle the Catechism as if the organic unity it espouses uses the “body of Christ” language in a literal sense—the historical and glorified body of Christ, or, in Halden’s terms: “physical, monopersonal identity.” I’d rethink this before posting another word.

    To be sure, many modern exegetes, whatever their tradition, have posited a literal sense, a real, personal conception of the “body of Christ.” It may be, Halden, that you’re reading into the tradition some more modern stuff you’ve read on the subject. It’s quite popular to construe “body of Christ” these days as identical with the body that died on the corss and rose on the third day (didn’t we see a post abou Hauerwas recently about this?).

    All the misgivings already mentioned here I think give sufficient cause to pause before jumping on the bandwagon and forgetting about the “clearer ontological distinction that need to be made between God and the Church than between God in Godself” (as Evan wrote).

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  5. Dennis wrote:

    I’m having a hard time grasping what Voif is saying. It’s likely from my limited understanding of Protestant theology. From my understanding (Catholic), the Body of Christ is a physical or rather mystical body. We are the Body of Christ and Christ is the head.

    As Catholics, we learn that we are united to Christ through Baptism (Colossians 2:11-12) and we remain in Him through the Eucharist. That as we receive the “Body of Christ” we proclaim “Amen” and are united to Christ at His crucifixion in the Church at every mass (1 Corinthians 11: 24-26) and it’s in our unity with Him that we attain salvation. If we ever commit a mortal sin, we must seek forgiveness from the Church to be able to enter back in to the Body through confession–because we CANNOT partake in the Eucharist unworthily (1 Corinthians 11: 27-28).

    So the Body of Christ is our unity with the Church through the Sacraments. It’s through this unity that Christ sanctifies us (per Ephesians 5: 25-30)

    We, the Church are His body as we are in this world to do His work. It’s no longer us, but rather Christ who lives in us and we are instruments of His will.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Actually, I wrote this before the posts on the Catechism, it isn’t really in view here. The object of Volf’s critique is actually the writing of Ratzinger and Zizioulas, whom he engages with very thoroughly.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  7. I’m not saying there is a shared subjectivity. who has ever argued that? oh wait, Paul does say, “We have the mind of Christ.” That at least has to be dealt with, does it not? The purpose of the Spirit is to unite us with Christ, not distinguish us from him.

    and regarding Volf, is mentioned his free church commitments b/c so far you are using him as an authority, but I think many would read these things very differently.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  8. Chris Donato wrote:

    But surely the point stands that the more traditional views (held by both Prots and Caths) re: “the body of Christ” share a similiar starting point.

    You did quote the Cathechism as a foil. But whatev.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I’m not using him as an authority, just a potential source to draw on in the conversation. Obviously people see things differently. This just sounds like you don’t like the fact that a free church voice is being admitted to the conversation at all. Would I be right to lead off, every time I discussed a Catholic thinker with “Now remember, everyone, he’s Catholic and this is a collectivist who overemphasized the unity of Christ and the church”? Shouldn’t we just take people’s arguments on their own merit rather than dismissing them on the basis of their ecclesial origin? That sounds a bit too much like the genetic fallacy to me.

    Being united with Christ presupposes proper distinguishing otherwise there’s no union happening, just a fusion. As for the verse about the mind of Christ I don’t see how, in context that can be construed as saying the church and Christ are one subject. Rather it points to how we are enabled, in Christ to think, act, and live, that is, according to Christ’s own way of being rather than according to the principalities and powers (cf., for example Phil 2:5 — “Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus . . .”).

    And the specific context of 1 Cor 2 is the question of the knowledge of God. Immediately preceding the statement you quote it reads “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” This seems to me to be clearly addressing the question of how do we know the mind of the Lord. We know it because we have been given to know Christ who reveals the very reality of God (“the depths of God”, cf. 2:10). Thus, in context “having the mind of Christ” doesn’t seem to be talking — at all — about being one person with Christ, but rather about the fact that through Christ and the Spirit we truly know God’s very reality, and this is the rationale for why the Corinthians should accept the “wisdom” that Paul proclaims (cf. 2:1-2, 7).

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  10. Aric Clark wrote:

    I’m not sure I’ve been convinced this is a good reading of Paul. Paul doesn’t necessarily use ‘spirit’ in opposition to physicality. Paul isn’t necessarily very careful with his metaphors. He mixes them frequently, such that I would be skeptical of too finnicky a parsing. Furthermore, it’s obvious just by looking around that there isn’t an organic unity between Christ and Church in the normal single human body sense. Paul couldn’t have meant, that, but it doesn’t mean we should throw out the physicality or organic meaning of his language. It’s a metaphor so he is probably just saying the unity of Church and Christ is ‘as if’ they were one organic physical body (though obviously they are not).

    In an earlier thread it was tossed out that being “the Body of Christ” is something to which the Church aspires, prays for… that it is not a given. Perhaps it is easier to say that the Church itself is not a given. That we are just people, aspiring toward that form of community called Church which is the Body of Christ. In so far as we collectively live in a way that could be described as being in organic unity with Christ then we are the Church.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 10:19 am | Permalink
  11. Brad A. wrote:

    But not necessarily accurately (see comments in next thread). It’s a great and informative discussion though, no doubt.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Well, I definitely quoted it accurately, lets make no mistake about that. The interpretation of course was debated. Just to be clear.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  13. Brad A. wrote:

    Oops – sorry Halden – I was looking only at your comment, not Chris’s, when I posted. I meant it as a continuation of “The object of Volf’s critique is actually the writing of Ratzinger and Zizioulas, whom he engages with very thoroughly…”

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  14. Chris Donato wrote:

    I’m all about the openness of this charge, Aric. The implicit condition is indeed aspiring toward God’s future.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink
  15. Kampen wrote:

    An important contribution of John Howard Yoder’s work was his response to the solely spiritual reading of the Gospels as well as the Epistles. The body of Christ is political and physical, he find, but that’s not to say it’s not spiritual. And Yoder would not have claimed it wasn’t spiritual either. (Sidenote: Where’s Yoder, Halden? Or have you had enough of him?). It seems to me our trouble is around “the mind of Christ.” I understand the notion as there being a Christological epistemology. Not only a politics, but also a particular way of knowing that takes place in the church which is informed by Christ. One of the most important, and largely overlooked, parts in Paul’s letters is his language about the mind and knowledge. Not only does Paul describe the transformation of the body (spiritual/metaphorical/physical), “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God”(Galatians 2:20), Paul also tells us that “where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”(1 Corinthians 13:8) I read the 1 Corinthians verse as apocalyptic but not solely eschatological (which seems to be common). Knowledge will come to an end. The mind of Christ is a gift a long with the body. These cannot be separate. In short, the knowledge and politics dichotomy is a false one according to Paul.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    I’m not trying to promote any “spiritual” reading here, let alone a non-political one, as I hope future posts make clear (and the Yoder is definitely “there” for me, I can’t get away from him). My point about the organic/physical issue refers to attempts to construe the church and Christ as together constituting one seamless person, one identical subject. That’s a different matter from what I think Yoder was addressing, though I think his writings on tradition in The Priestly Kingdom, with their emphasis on “looping back” to Christ in his particularity for finding the faithful path of the church in the present sits well with the kind of distance I’m advocating within the union of Christ and the church.

    As for the point about knowledge in 1 Corinthians, I think Paul’s point about the “passing away” is bound up with the fact that at present we know “in part.” What passes away is not knowledge (of Christ) as such, but its current, partial reality. In other words, what happens is not the passing away of “the mind of Christ” but its full presence. Then we “know fully just as we have been fully known.”

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  17. Theophilus wrote:

    If we’re having fun with Paul’s language of body, it’s worth noting that bodies in Paul exhibit multiple personalities, specifically located in body parts. 1 Corinthians 12:15-21 clearly places separate personalities in the foot, the ear, the eye, and the head. Anyone being literalist enough to assume that a Pauline reference to a body requires a single personality animating this body is being careless here.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

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