Friday, August 01, 2008

Jesus, the Church and the world

My previous post was ostensibly about the end of the world; in fact, it was about the way that Christ relates to his Church and his world. I want to outline three models of the relationship between Christ, the Church and the world, which I will characterise as the Roman, the Liberal and the Reformed. In using those labels, I don't mean that the positions I describe are consistently or exclusively held by people who would own those labels. The labels and the analysis generally are based on (my possibly very limited understanding of) Barth, but I find them to hold true. Let me know what you think.

On the Roman view, Christ is practically identified with the Church. This shows clearly in the Roman doctrine of revelation. God reveals himself, for the Roman Catholic, in Scripture and the Church's tradition. These apparent two sources are in fact not equal, for only the Church has the ability to correctly interpret Scripture. The result is that in fact God's revelation is identified with the Church's teaching. In the doctrine of salvation we see the same pattern. A person is saved by believing the Church and submitting to the sacraments of the Church. The Church is the source of salvation through which all God's grace is mediated. Where is Christ? He is in the Church. This shows most obviously in Roman sacramental theology regarding the Mass: the priest is literally able to make Christ physically present in a way which cannot happen outside the Church. There is more or less no distinction between the work of Christ and the work of the Church.

What about the liberal view? Well, revelation for the liberal protestant tends to mean simply a spiritualised reading of the general history of the world. 'Human development' and 'cultural advances' were the main source of 'revelation' for the liberals of the 19th century, and it is still the case that liberals look primarily to humanity for revelation. Liberals do not major on the doctrine of salvation, but if they have anything to say it tends towards universalism and the general salvation of all through their own effort or moral rectitude or spirituality. Where is Christ? In the world, in a sense - he is ubiquitous, because he is mythical. That is not to say Christ is not real, but he is real in the sense of a general truth rather than a particular person. There is no distinction between the work of Christ and the playing out of world history.

The Reformed view places revelation firmly in the person of Christ, as witnessed by the prophets and apostles in Scripture. In contrast to the Roman view, this Scripture is not under the control of the Church, but stands over against the Church. And as opposed to the liberals, this Christ is not merely the product of human culture but is the intervention of God in history, indeed the incarnate God himself. In terms of salvation, the Reformed view is that Christ alone saves, through faith in him. The Church does not mediate grace as the Roman view would have it. Grace comes 'direct', from the Lord. The Reformed view introduces a distinction between the work of Christ and the work of the Church: it must, because it recognises that the Church can go wrong and need to be called back to the Word of God. Where is Christ on this view? He is in Heaven. But he is witnessed to by his word in Scripture.

Obviously, I think the Reformed view, as I have called it, is correct. What does that make the Church? Well, if I had to define it in a sentence I would say this:

The Church is a community gathered around a signpost which points to redemption.

What I am trying to do is empty out the Church of any virtue of its own, and also of any claim to possess any virtue of Christ's. Christ is with, and in, the Church, by his word and Spirit, but we must not identify Christ and the Church, or the work of Christ and the Church. Christ does not belong to the Church in the same way that the Church belongs to Christ.

Reading back through this, it's a little less clear than I'd like. I'll follow up with further clarification, but in the meantime please do jump in and offer any thoughts you may have.


  1. Anonymous1:42 pm

    The prophesies of Second and Third Isaiah are fantastic as are most of First Isaiah and we find constantly the nations shall be drawn to the Church. The Church is the body of Christ, it is the temple and the Church is to sound forth the gospel of transformation.

    Indeed, grace is mediated through the Church and this is the Reformed position, hence why we speak of Means of Grace. The idea of an immediate grace is not Reformed but rather revivalistic. Christ works in the world through the Church.

  2. Interesting analysis. The weight of Paul's in language has led me to think of the church as not just gathered around a signpost, but as we are in Christ, we are a signpost, as a body is a 'sign' to its head, a bride to her groom, etc., - cf. 1 John 4.12 with John 1.18. Hm?

  3. Thanks for comments.

    Richard, I'm at least as keen on the prophecy (singular; call me old fashioned, but that's the way I see it) of Isaiah, but I'm not sure whether what you're saying in your first paragraph contradicts what I'm saying? What you say in your 2nd paragraph surely does, and I guess I just don't agree with you!

    Rosemary, I think you're right that what I've said up to this point hasn't taken seriously enough the 'in' language of Scripture. My initial thought is simply that this 'in' is by faith... That doesn't really clarify anything though.

    I'm planning a proper, thought-through, balanced post about the church later today... Maybe that will clear things up. Or maybe I'm just wrong... ;o)

  4. Anonymous10:26 am


    Belgic Confession Article 28: "We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them."

    Belgic Confession Article 33: Sacraments "are visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means whereof God worketh in us by the power of the Holy Ghost."

    WCF 25.2: "The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children:[3] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."

    WCF 27.3: "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that does administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers."

    Westminster Larger Catechism
    Question 63: What are the special privileges of the visible church?

    The visible church has the privilege of being under God's special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, not withstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.

    Question 161: How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?

    The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.

    Grace is mediated through the Church and this is the Reformed position. You disagree, fine but I would love to see your confessional evidence. :-)

  5. Richard,

    Thanks for that. I think if I explain myself more clearly you will see I am not saying quite what you think I am, but I confess this post was muddled because I'm writing more or less as I'm thinking.

    Just a thought, though: if I couldn't produce any confessional evidence, granted I may have to drop the label 'Reformed', but would that make me wrong?

  6. I do wonder whether you might not have (in the noble interest of avoiding the errors of rome) overplayed the heavenly and downplayed the earthly. Where is Christ? He is in heaven indeed. But where will we find Christ here on earth? The answer is in his Church, where he is present through his word and his Spirit. We have not been left alone, as orphans.

    This does not equate the work of Christ with the work of the Church in every sense, such that they cannot be distinguished. As you say, the Church can (and does) err. But whenever the Church is(and to the degree that it ever is) being what it ought to be, then we might properly say that Christ is at work when the Church is at work. Isn't this the implication of the book of Acts - the continuing work of Christ by his Spirit but always through his people (even despite their mistakes and imperfections). Indeed, such is the closeness that Saul was persecuting Christ when he persecuted his body. In Christ the church is the temple of God and the new Adam.