Blog Template Theology of the Body: Considering Radner I.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Considering Radner I.

Covenant Communion?

De Lubac on

Incorporation in the Two Aspects of the Church

(The Splendor of the Church, 1986)

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas;" still another, "I follow Christ." …Is Christ divided?” I Corinthians 1:10-13

It seems that recently trendy Protestant ecclesiology is increasingly conducted in a Radnerian key, which (very loosely construed) seems to proceed from the following principles. First, the Church is viewed as fundamentally broken or “wounded.” Secondly, in as much as the evidence of this inherent woundedness is located in the sins of schism and division among Christian communities, the obvious alternative seems to be for Christians to get along by first blaming their problems on this indemic woundeness, and then to attempt to cohabit by the sheer force of willed commitment. Thus the primary work of the Holy Spirit will be to operate through human agents for the gradual re-constituting of the Church through the human mechanisms of binding agreement, such as diplomacy, bargaining, and covenants, construed in various ways.

On this rather sad view, it would seems that the broken world was merely handed another intrinsically sick body at Pentecost, whose total mission is to try to heal itself by inspired negotiations. Setting aside for a moment the depressing gloom of this description, as well as Barth’s severe warning on point, the above construal bears for this reader scant resemblance to the Biblical authors' contagious rejoicing at the marriage supper of the Lamb, and hearkens even less to Augustine’s breathless admiration for the immaculate bride-as-new-Eve born from the wounds of Christ on His Cross. On the contrary, it seems that the sincere penitent, on considering his salvation, might be driven to outright panic on Radner's description, when he considers the more basic principle, affirmed by the Fathers and modern theologians alike, that his salvation depends on his proper and full incorporation into this body, which, in the Radnerian key, is so wounded that the lone penitent might be always at great risk of falling through a crack. It has been suggested that the solution to this dire problem is for Christians to “covenant” together, in order to shore up the grace which is promised to all the baptized, for the outworking of their common mission. Putting such proposals in conversation with De Lubac’s resourcement ecclesiological theology might clarify fruitful questions for future dialogue.

It is true that the idea of securing grace through binding agreements or “covenants” is a very old one. In the thirteenth century, the scholastics Richard Fishacre and Robert Kilwardby proposed that the sacramental grace needed for salvation was “contracted” in the Church through the due enactment of authorized symbols. Gabriel Biel followed suit in his argument that God would show mercy to humanity in exchange for a sincere and adequately demonstrative performance of faith and charity. St. Thomas refutes these proposals in his victorious explanation of the unmerited nature of the grace which, in as much as it belongs to God alone, operates instrumentally and directly by literally touching the body and cleansing the heart of the recipient through the sacraments. When Protestant theology turned away from its foundation in the tradition compiled by the medieval schoolmen, it rehearsed the former trends with a new urgency; thus Calvin and his following reduced the life of Christian faith to a covenant, enacted in and through a covenant community, which appropriated salvation for its members through the covenantal symbols of baptism and the Eucharist; the communion of believers, joined by the invisible bonds of consensus, thus becomes a means and locus of engaging grace through the offer/acceptance dynamic of a covenant conducted among God and neighbor.

Against this modern proposal, De Lubac summarizes one of the most striking aspects of Catholic ecclesiology: rather than describing the Church’s emergence from the union of human covenanters, in which grace is secured by various authorized mechanisms, De Lubac echoes the more ancient teaching that the Church comes only from Christ. Thus she is herself simply “the sacrament of Christ, as Christ Himself, in His humanity, is for us the sacrament of God.” (De Lubac, Splendor of the Church 202) If we apply Thomas’ definition of a sacrament here, we would say further that in as much as the Church belongs to God alone, she exercises on the bodies of the people whom she touches a direct effect accomplished through the Divine institution, by virtue merely of her creation; there is no humanly intermediary covenant mechanism required. As the “last testament/covenant,” formed by the final assent uttered by humanity in Christ on His cross, after which there is to be no other, (204, 205) the Church is “that which we already have, not a heralding or a preparation more or less remote-” but here and now- “the whole coming of the Son of Man.” (ibid) De Lubac finds the ample foundation for his explanation in the writings of the fathers; but his extensive citation of their writings, in which the Church is simply identified with Christ, is summarized by a statement of the peasant saint Joan of Arc, which De Lubac deems adequate to summarize all the thought of the ecclesial Doctors: “it seems to me that it is all one, Christ and the Church, and it seems to me we ought not to make any difficulty of it.” (211)

It is in this regard that we find no mention of “covenant” in De Lubac’s ecclesiology as a fundamental descriptor of the Christian’s communion with Christ in the Church. De Lubac is eager to affirm the Church as creature of the context of the New Covenant, in which God has come to dwell with His people in the spiritual and human person of His body, the Church; but De Lubac has no sense of the Church as a spiritual reality emerging from the consensus of her members. In fact, on his insistence of “a relation of mystical identity” between Christ and His church, (209) De Lubac sternly rejects this sort of impulse as idolatrous; on his explanation, if modern ecclesiology construes itself as the product of a negotiated covenant among Christian members, we might find “the growing tendency toward a real homogeneity between (the) worshippers and the beings that are worshipped.”

Instead, De Lubac construes the worship of Christ by the Church, which is appropriated by her members, as involving two aspects, on the model of the hypostatic union of Christ’s divinity and humanity, from which the Church is also constituted “under two aspects.” (103) Here, de Lubac distinguishes the inseparable “active” and “passive” aspects of the Church, in whom both the voice that calls and the members assembled are united indissolubly, (ibid) in the one call of the Bridegroom who continually calls the world’s ungathered to His Body, through His Body. De Lubac insists that this construal is the only way in which the Church can bear witness to her Lord’s Incarnation- the hypostatic union of Logos with Jesus of Nazareth- and any attempt to divide the invisible, mystical, transcendent form of this ecclesial Body from its historical, visible boundaries and instantiations reduces the human aspect to such sociological considerations as those which apply to covenant making, and then shades the entire Gospel with the monophysite and Platonic slurs which deny that the Christ has come, in the flesh. (102, 105) As Christ’s Body, the Church has full divinity and fully humanity, inseparably.

Still, De Lubac is aware that in herself as recipient creature, the venerable Church should not be worshipped as her Head alone is to be worshipped, since she possesses of herself nothing of His divinity which she did not first receive. Thus, having established the principle of mystical identity between Christ and the Church, it is here that De Lubac qualifies his insistence on this relation of "identity” with recourse to a covenant framework. The covenantal framework invoked here is, however, not described in the sense of a product of ecumenical discourse arrived at between the Church’s human members as to how they will co-create a common life together; rather, De Lubac seems to envision a covenant which was once and for all engaged between the human Body and her Head to constitute the new flesh of “the great mystery” in an ontological, real nuptial union. Here, De Lubac’s punctuation of his ecclesial metaphors with the language of the Church as covenanted “Bride” and covenant-created “Household” is significant. De Lubac introduces the Church as the Bride who wields her Spouse’s authority and grace while at the same time benefiting from them, by virtue of her total union with her divine spouse. (107-109) Furthermore, “the Church (is) the House of Christ, in which Christ is given to us in a final and eternal alliance.” (211)

Thus, on De Lubac’s terms, there is indeed a covenant which constitutes saving union with Christ; but the covenant is not made with respect to the members of the Church, but with respect to the Church entire, as she is in her fullness. In De Lubac’s invocation of the nuptial imagery for the total union between Christ and the Church, we find implicit the notion of a total covenant. And if this is the case, De Lubac introduces a way of construing covenant in discussions of ecclesiology and soteriology. By its nature, a covenant requires two voices, one to issue an offer, the other to guarantee a response. Following on Calvin’s proposal that a saving covenant must be engaged between the individual and God at baptism, and that the Church thus emerges as the covenant communion of covenanting individuals, De Lubac’s proposal of the mystical identity between Christ and the Church teaches us that in the Church there is ultimately only one voice, which is Christ’s, saying to the Father in His humanity, “it is finished.” And, on St. Joan’s humble explanation, there is nothing more to say, though there is surely much left to obey.

In this way, as De Lubac summarizes, the notion that for each one of us Christ is His Church becomes a very practical matter. (210) In sum, De Lubac’s governing principle seems to be that the only covenant that matters with regard to individual salvation in and through the Church has already been made and consummated between Christ and His immaculate Bride; “he who is not a member of the body does not receive influx from the Head; he who does not cling to the one Bride is not loved by the Bridegroom.” (210) The unity of the Church thus subsists not in human agreements, but in the integrity of the Head, who has united Himself to His Body:

The integrity of Christ signifies the indivisible unity of the Head and the Body, in plenitudine Ecclesiae, and in consequence, the indivisible unity of all those who are parts of this body… (thus) her mysterious reality always transcends all those who belong to her and gather to her… she is actualized and localized in their groupings, but she is neither divided not multiplied by them, for she is always more than they are. (110-111)

Thus, when elaborating on the implications of the Church’s nuptial covenant with her Lord with respect to individual members, De Lubac lists the following aspects of the covenant communion between the Body and Her Head, to which the Church’s individual members must be found to conform. The implication of the Church’s dual human and divine interaction, as consummated in her own nuptial covenant with Christ, clearly “involves a meaning that is not interchangeable: no children without a mother; no people without leaders;… no communion of saints without a communication of holy things. And similarly, no constituted assembly without a constitution, which includes a hierarchy.” (109-110) And finally, in the reality of the givenness of this already- consummated covenant, which has formed “one flesh” into which the baptized are born, De Lubac warns: "we should remember that there is no substantial hope of unity outside the institution which received the promise of unity... we should hold as an absolute principle that there can never be a valid reason for separating ourselves from her." (211)

In conclusion, De Lubac seems to remind us that though the Church as corpus Christi does, in one respect, exist under the aspect of a human covenant, this covenant does not belong to us as her members; it is the Church’s nuptial covenant, formed with her spouse, with which her members have nothing to do but assent, in order that they may benefit ontologically from her union, and then extend Christ’s household benefits to the waiting world.