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Is the church a subject?

The notion of the church as the totus Christus, a notion commonly connected to the image of the body of Christ seems to imply that the church is an entity, a subject. However, is this the case? Volf says no:

The church, both as the universal communio sanctorum and the local church, is not a collective subject, but rather a communion of persons, though the latter are indeed not self-contained subjects, but rather are interdependent in a twofold fashion. First, they live only insofar as Christ lives in them through the Spirit (see Gal. 2:20; 1 Cor. 6:19). Second, the Christ lives in them through the multiple relations they have with one another (see 1 Cor. 12:12-13). Yet even though Christians are bound into this complex network of relationships, they still remain subjects; indeed, their being subjects is inconceivable without these relationships (see Gal. 2:20). This is why one must conceive the “one” who Christians are in Christ (Gal. 3:28; see Eph. 2:14-16) not as a “unified person” who has “transcended all differentiation,” but rather precisely as a differentiated unity, as a communion, of those who live in Christ.

Accordingly, the universal church is not a subject that is actualized and acts within the local church, nor is it indeed identical with the local church. Christ, however, who is present in the local church through his Spirit and in this way makes it into the church in a proleptic experience of the eschatological gathering of the entire people of God, connects every local church with all other churches of God,  indeed with the entire communion of those who through the Spirit are “in Christ.”

In other words, on this view, the church is not a collective subject, let alone a sort of “total person” co-constituting Christ. Rather the church is a nexus of relationships actualized by the gracious presence of Christ in the Spirit that is an eschatological anticipation of the final union of of all created reality in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Thus the church is seen as a Trinitarian event (of the radical outpouring of grace), which always takes the form of persons being given to one another in and through Christ’s own agape.


  1. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m not sure we need this either/or. In the Trinity, the persons give themselves to each other in love, but there is still one God. Yes, the church is a communion of persons, but it is still one body. It is one body with many distinct members, yet still one organic whole – one organism – all the same. That is the biblical imagery, and therefore I’m not sure Volf here can make this dichotomy. Volf seems very concerned about, to put it simply, the rights of individuals (whether individual persons or individual local churches) in this book, and I think that concern tends (understandably) to color his argument.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  2. Chris Donato wrote:

    “The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). It doesn’t seem Volf improves on this; indeed, it seems he’s positing an unnecessary bifurcation.

    Contra Volf (unless I’m reading him wrong), the local church is rather a microcosm of the church universal; it is not a “part.” As such, the universal church subsists in toto in the local church. Could it be that Volf is actually assuming the very presuppositions of those who argue for papal primacy?

    Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  3. FYI, I posted a bumbling response to this rejection of the idea of the church as a collective subject over at Memoria Dei, but trackback seems not to have taken.

    Monday, February 15, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

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