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Union with Christ, union with each other

It’s often commonly perceived that a central difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic ecclesiologies lies in that the former claims that one’s membership in the church is conditioned upon their union with Christ, whereas the latter tends to argue that one is only united with Christ through their membership in the church. Obviously this is caricature, but it does get at a common sentiment or style often found in various Protestant and Roman ecclesiologies.

But in turning the Roman Catechism again, I noticed something rather different. The Catechism specifically posits “the unity of all [the church's] members with each other as a result of their union with Christ” (789). This is the exact articulation of what is commonly perceived as the “Protestant” instinct, namely to  argue that the church’s mutual togetherness is constituted by Christ’s own indwelling of all Christians. In other words, even for the Roman Catechism one does not obtain union with Christ by becoming part of the church, rather through Christ’s act of uniting himself with you, you become part of the community of all those in whom Christ already dwells through the Spirit.


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    Indeed. And for what it’s worth, Halden, our dept. chair, who is Roman Catholic religious and a sacramental theologian as well as noted ecumenical participant, has said herself in conversation that “Body of Christ” is a metaphor, and that all metaphors have limitations.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  2. Chris Donato wrote:

    Hence what I wrote in an earlier post with respect to the shared starting point, traditionally, for both Catholics and Protestants: “a figurative—metaphorical and collective—view of the body of Christ. …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.’”

    Both start, in short, from the (metaphorical) notion that the “body” specifies who the organic whole of Christ’s people are—i.e., those in union with him. The differences, of course, come to the fore when the way the nature of this union is explained (again, for Catholics, via the Eucharist; for Protestants, via the church’s pneumatic mode of existence).

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  3. Dennis wrote:

    I think there’s more subtlety to this than what’s in 789. In 789, it says that we are united to Christ first but how is this done?

    790 explains that it’s through the Sacraments. Specifically through Baptism. In Baptism, Christ unites Himself to us and we are reborn.

    We are all brothers and sisters of Christ through Baptism. It’s the grace received from Baptism that saves us as we are united to Christ’ in His death and resurrection and into His Church.

    So, yes, as we are united to Christ (through Baptism) we also are welcomed into the Church (through Baptism). This event happens at the same time.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 9:04 am | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    One thing I think worth exploring, and I think a book dealing with this was mentioned, is the manner in which every manner of speech about singular realities such as the hypostatic union, the union of Christ with the Church, etc. is necessarily metaphorical. So it is impossible to say, for example, that “the body of Christ” is a metaphor whereas “indwelling” is not. Indwelling is likewise metaphorical, it is just much more vague. So if it appears less problematic, it is because it is commensurately less determinate. Both metaphors are ratified by scripture and tradition, which is what renders them acceptable and true, but I think the categorization of “more” or “less” metaphorical may be misleading. The body imagery is much more arresting and unsettling, and therefore a challenge to grapple with, which is what you are doing. Cheers to that.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 9:59 am | Permalink
  5. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Halden, I’m just now proofreading Roger Owens’s book “The Shape of Participation,” which you copyedited, and so naturally I’m wondering about the lack of any language of participation in this conversation (I admit I have not read all the comments and posts, so I might have missed something). But Owens’s remarks about Cyril of Alexandria are germane to the conversation, in so far as the R.C. answer to the question about the nature of the church’s identity as the body of Christ arguably has roots in patristic accounts of what it might mean for God to make us, in Christ, participants in the divine nature (where the Fathers were interpreting texts like 2 Peter 1:4). A snippet: “Participation for Cyril is not an abstract, ontological reality, but a soteriological implication of the incarnation in which humans share. . . . It is commonplace to say that the church participates in God through the Spirit, and this is usually understood in terms of the distinct missio of of the Spirit in the church. But Cyril’s pneumatological account of our participation does not begin with a discussion of the distinct mission of the Spirit in the church. Instead, he turns to the Spirit’s work in the incarnation itself as the only way to make intelligible the Spirit’s work in the church.” Back to proofreading.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  6. Aric Clark wrote:

    It occurs to me that this reality could be spoken of in either direction, or really is assumed to be simultaneous. It is our unity with one another that permits union with Christ. Love of God IS love of neighbor. Have you given a cup of water to someone who thirsts? If not Christ doesn’t know you. etc…

    I think it’s important that we push both directions, because I find the danger of a “me & Jesus” theology far more dangerous to the church than a social justice orientation.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  7. Chris Donato wrote:

    Nah. One has to be prior, has to serve as the impetus for the other. In this case, it’s union with Christ—but, with an eye on your concern, it ought never be construed individually at the expense of the body, the collective.

    Surely it takes on a reciprocal flavor, not least when we’re serving even “the least of these.” Take away the union (via the sacraments and/or the Spirit-indwelt mode of the church’s existence) as the driving force behind the unity we share as the body and you’ve got little more than a social club left. No?

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  8. Kampen wrote:

    It’s interesting that one finds the practice of infant baptism in both the Protestant and the Catholic traditions. I was recently talking with an Anglican friend of mine who explained to me that in infant baptism the infant is bound to the church (a sign Anabaptists perform through child dedication) and then, later on in life, the person baptized as an infant may choose to accept of reject his/her baptism. In the traditions that practice believer’s baptism the child may participates in the church prior to baptism, but is only accepted into membership by the community upon his/her confession of faith.

    Being of the Anabaptist tradition, I suddenly found myself very interested in the theology of infant baptism (vs. believer’s baptism) and what that says/signs to about union with Christ and with the church. It almost appears to be the case that in believer’s baptism, faith is a prerequisite for union with Christ and the church, whereas in infant baptism, one comes (can come) to believe precisely because one is bound to Christ and the church. (I’m using the term “faith” here loosely, as meaning”belief”).

    Fergus Kerr writes: “It is because people exult and lament, sing for joy, who wail their sins and so on, that they are able, eventually to have thoughts about God. Worship is not the result, but the precondition of believing in God.” This has been an important quote ever since I heard it a few years ago, but how does it converse with believer’s and infant baptism, and union with Christ, and the church.

    Anyone have thoughts on any of that?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 12:55 am | Permalink
  9. Dennis wrote:

    I think it depends on the definition of Worship.

    In the broadest sense, worship is fulfilling the will of God. It’s to act according to His plan. (i.e. by doing what we are designed to do, we worship God).

    In that sense, worship is written into our hearts. The desire for God is born with us and we instinctively search for Him and worship.

    All of us instinctively do God’s will through our daily activivities–like breathing. It’s when we actively fail to do God’s will that we fall into sin. These small instinctual acts (like eating or breathing or sleeping) and the desire to know God will eventually lead us to Him.

    I think the difference between believer’s baptism and infant baptism is at what point in this process does the person get baptized. In Catholic teaching, Baptism is the visible sign that we are receiving God’s salvific grace. We are being marked with Christ and are reborn into His body. I don’t think your Anglican friend quite got it with “accepting or rejecting the Baptism.” That would be like rejecting your birth. Once you’re baptized, that’s it. Per the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” What I think he meant to say is that we reject our baptismal vows which would thus have us fall out of grace and we would need to seek reconciliation with His Body.

    Personally, I’m okay with either believer’s or infant baptism but there is a risk with believer’s baptism –if the person dies before he believes and is not baptized, then there’s the risk of eternal damnation as they have not been sealed and in union with Christ. Of course, the Church believes that God can save anyone and we hold hope that before the moment of his death, Christ sanctified the person and gave him the grace to enter into His Body–as that’s the only way we know how to be saved.

    With infant baptism, it also gives the parents and godparents the responsibility to raise the child as a Christian. Realistically, a child cannot sin (outside of the stain of original sin) until he’s reached the age of reason. So, infant baptism would be more like an insurance policy in the event that something tragic could happen.

    I hope all of that made sense.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 7:06 am | Permalink
  10. Kampen wrote:

    Your last point, the insurance policy bit, is what worries me. Infant baptism then becomes something through which the church can secure salvation (to put it crassly) or at least union with Christ, when instead it is Christ who comes to us. (See also Acts 2:33,39 that Halden referred to in the post before this one). What I think my friend meant to say, and might have actually said, is that after infant baptism one has been bound to the body of Christ but then one can choose to reject or accept the church (not their baptism) and deny their baptism. (Is what I meant to say).

    My point with the Fergus Kerr quote was not so much focused on the term “worship” rather than the precondition idea in it. But baptism is also worship. I’m juggling around several sentences: “baptism is the precondition for believing in God”, “baptism is the precondition for union with Christ”, “union with Christ is the precondition for believing in God”, “believing in God (faith as Kerr puts it) is the precondition for union with Christ”
    What do you think?
    (I may or may not be using “baptism” and “union with Christ” synonymously here. I’m not sure whether I want to make that move or not).

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    For what its worth, for Yoder believers’ baptism is precisely a sign of the radicality of God’s grace. Here I think he’s following Barth’s understanding of election in which all are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Thus baptism is our subjective affirmation of the objective fact of reconciliation. Thus, faith is not a “prerequisite for union” as the union is always-already achieved in Christ. Baptism is merely the “yes” of faith to God’s act of uniting himself with us in Christ’s death and resurrection.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink
  12. Kampen wrote:

    “Thus, faith is not a “prerequisite for union” as the union is always-already achieved in Christ.” I can get behind that. But thereafter you (or Yoder) leave me with a low view of the sacrament of baptism. So, baptism is then always and only a sign? Or a metaphor?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    It is a sign that participates in the reality it signifies, and thus a sacrament. Or that’s how I’d like to put it, anyway.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  14. Dennis wrote:


    Baptism is a visible sign of the invisible grace. We can only be saved by God’s grace. Can we receive God’s grace without Baptism? Sure. But we don’t know if we have it or not as it’s invisible. The Baptism–both Protestant and Catholic is the rite which is a visible evidence that we have received God’s sanctifying grace. So, the Baptism isn’t what saves us, it’s the grace given to us by Jesus Christ at Baptism that saves us. The grace given to us at Baptism unites us to Him–we are now clothed in Christ . Not because of the act of the Baptism but because God gives us the grace.

    So, through Baptism, we can secure salvation (and He does come to us) as we are born again (per John 3:5); however, we must remain in Him and He in us. As your friend mentioned, if we reject Christ–as Catholics and I assume Anglicans–through active disobedience of Church teachings then we must be reconciled to the Church again through God’s grace.

    The sentences that I would juggle around would be: Baptism is the sign that we have received sanctifying grace. Baptism is the sign that we have been united to Christ.

    I’m having trouble understanding what you mean by “believing in God. ”

    If you mean that I believe God exists, then there is not really much significance to that–as even the demons know God exists.

    My understanding of “believing in God” is to completely trust Him in everything that I do. So that it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. It’s to seek God’s will above my own in the hope that my life points to a meaning greater than me.

    If that’s what you mean, then I would agree that “baptism is the precondition for believing in God,” and that “union with Christ is the precondition for believing in God”

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  15. Kampen wrote:

    “So, through baptism, we can secure salvation.” Really? We can secure salvation? Or, baptism is a sign of our receiving the grace and salvation that Christ gives; the grace that transforms us when we die in our baptism and Christ comes to live in us. ?

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 1:06 am | Permalink
  16. Dennis wrote:

    Yeah, you’re right. That didn’t come out right and is not what I meant. As you said, baptism is a sign of our receiving the grace and salvation that Christ gives; the grace that transforms us when we die in our baptism and Christ comes to live in us. I think what I should say is that our salvation is secured through the grace of Jesus Christ in baptism.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

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