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Body and bride

When the image of the church as the body of Christ is conceived as indicating a monopersonal, ontological identification between Christ and the church, it is usually found to be something of a contrast with the image of the church as the bride of Christ, which is clearly an interpersonal rather than a monopersonal image. Thus, in most ecclesiologies that take this tack, the two contrasting images serve to dialectically “balance” one another.

However, the very notion that the two images are contrastive in this way, is I think, open to question once we abandon the notion of the body of Christ should be interpreted as indicating a mystical co-personhood. Rather, the image of the body points at once to the interdependence of the members of the church (1 Cor 12:14-26) and the singular and sovereign lordship of Christ over the church (Col 1:18; Eph 1:22-23). Thus, the image of the body, like that of the bride directs our attention to the interpersonal dimension of Christ’s relationship to the church. Christ relates to the church as it’s Head, its Lord and Source (which is a very probable translation of kephale, a fact that often goes unnoticed).

The way the bride image qualifies the image of the body, then, is not that it supplies an image of distinction whereas the body supplies an image of union. Rather, both together indicate the nature of the distinctly interpersonal union between Christ and the church. In the image of Christ as Head/Source he is seen as the Lord of the church to whom the church owes its existence entirely. In the image of Christ as Bridegroom, he is seen as the one who utterly and fully loves the church, to the point of giving up his own life for her. Both images speak to the nature of the utterly intimate, unbreakable communion between Christ and the people of God: Christ is at once their sovereign Lord ans Source, and their self-giving Servant who pours out his life for them in love.


  1. Dennis wrote:

    I haven’t seen you mention this but I’ve understood that Paul meant the union between Christ and the Church is meant to be sexually.

    This is why Paul refers to the Church as bride and that the two shall become one. I think “two shall become one” is slang for sexual intimacy in the NT (as per 1 Cor. 6:15-17)

    So, in Ephesians 5, the imagery I see is to have an intimate relationship where we each know each other in every facet of the word. We become one in Christ through an intimate union. Our relationship is personal and He knows me and I him in the Biblical sense of the word.

    It almost seems like Paul is uncomfortable talking in this manner as soon as he makes the connection between sex and the Church (Ephesians 5: 31-32), he quickly changes the subject using, “in any case…” and then bringing it back to loving the wife and the husband.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    Yeah, I’d go for this. I think you need to take Dennis’s comment into consideration, though; what does it mean, then, for Christ and his Bride to become one flesh? Is that only in the future, or does it happen now? One flesh need not mean one person, of course, but there seems to be something significant there to consider.

    The qualification going on, as you suggest, is not one unidirectional but reciprocal.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  3. Thanks for the whole series of posts on the Body of Christ. I’m sympathetic to a lot of what you are saying here, though I don’t have time to read all of what has been said in detail.

    I have Hegel on my mind, since I am preparing a presentation on his work next week, and Hegel commits almost all of the errors that Volf and Williams (and you Halden, of course) are wanting us to be wary of. Hegel has his own “empty tomb tradition,” but it is also an “empty sky” tradition as well: not only is God not around on earth to appeal to for authority (as Williams says in “Between the Cherubim”), but God is also not “in heaven” (meaning transcendence) either. Christ is resurrected into the Church. Thus, the Church is the (current) existence of God: “Thus the community itself is the existing Spirit, the Spirit in its existence, God existing as community” (taken from the Abridged Version of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Peter C. Hodgson [Berkley: University of California Press, 1988], 373). But this then functions, in a roundabout fashion, to make God present for authority after all, to give absolute certainty (what Williams says we cannot have), since the witness of the Spirit is philosophy: “The witness of the spirit in its highest form is that of philosophy, according to which the concept develops the truth purely as such form itself without presuppositions It cognizes…the necessity of the truth” (Ibid., 398). So Hegel ends up with a “Monophysite” Christology of sorts: the divine and human have been reconciled, to the extent that there is no longer any divinity apart from humanity. Consequently, the Church is the Kingdom of God–the antithesis of the anthem with which Volf opens After Our Likeness (the Kingdom of God is not not reducible to the Church). For Hegel, we need not even bother with the empty tomb or empty sky, except to see that God is not elsewhere. It is the characteristic of “Unhappy Consciousness” to look to transcendence; Unhappy Consciousness is exactly what the cross does away with.

    But sometimes Williams worries me as well. I get the impression that his God is so “over,” “above,” “elusive” and in “judgment” of the church, that the church is left to stumble around in the dark (asking profound questions of course, and questioning all authorities and certainties).

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink
  4. Thomas wrote:

    I’m not sure who is advocating that the two images dialectically balance one another. The way of speaking I am most familiar with (and the position taken the the Catechism as discussed earlier) is that both images are analogies, and therefore hold in some ways and are weak in others. The image of the Christ’s body tends to emphasize the unity of the Church and Christ, while the image of the Church as bride emphasizes the diversity between the two. But that’s not to say that the two are simply opposites that have to be resolved dialectically. The unity in the image of Christ’s body does not exclude distinction (Christ is primarily the head, the Church the body, and the members are distinctive of one another). Further, the diversity called forth in the image of Christ as the bridegroom does not do away with a deeper unity — the bride and bridegroom aren’t just two individuals who enter into a civil contract, they are one flesh. Both images complement one another, they don’t stand in a strong dialectical tension.

    You seem to want to privilege the diversity of the Church over the unity, which not only overlooks many of the necessary features of the body analogy, it fundamentally affects the bride/bridegroom analogy. In the latter case, it doesn’t really provide any inherent way for marriage as becoming one flesh to mean more than the physiological act of copulating or for the ontological structure of one’s person to be changed in the union of marriage. That is, it involves a rather atomic theory of personhood, where the basic thing is the units, and then there’s the (ontologically secondary) derivative relations.

    You still have the problem that Paul specifically invokes the body of a person, complete with head, hands, feet, and so on (so it’s obviously not just a political body). One must buy into an extreme form of dualism to think that the body is not constituted in a personal unity. That doesn’t just affect ecclesiology, it affects theological anthropology. The way one understands this image necessarily involves the way one understands what it is to be a person and have a body.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for that, Thomas. And yeah, there’s no question that Hegel has had a pretty strong impact on segments of contemporary ecclesiologies. Its good that you’re investigating this.

    Friday, February 12, 2010 at 8:07 am | Permalink

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