The Mystical Body of Christ – The Extension of the Incarnation in Us, the Church
Since the words “the body of Christ” can refer to two things, it is useful to define them and make a distinction. There is the literal, physical, earthly body of Jesus Christ the God-Man, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead, which still exists but which has been transformed into a glorified, heavenly body (still physical but which exhibited some different-than-normal properties after Jesus’ Resurrection), as our physical earthly bodies will also be so transformed with heavenly glory at the Final Resurrection. But the Bible most often uses the term “the Body of Christ” to refer to the Church, and so theologians distinguish between the physical or earthly body of Jesus and the Mystical Body of Jesus, the Church, which the Bible reveals mysteriously participates in Jesus’ Divine Life as His very Body (see below). I will normally use the term “the Body of Christ” as the Bible does, in reference to the Church, the Body of human believers united to the human-and-divine Christ the Head (Colossians 1:18, 2:19, Ephesians 5:23, 4:15, 1:10, 22) and indwelt by the divine Holy Spirit.
The “Profound Mystery” (Ephesians 5:32) of the Church as Christ’s Very Body
The Church being the Body of Christ is another mystery related closely to the Mystery of the Incarnation, because Jesus the God-Man, physically ascended into Heaven, reaches out in love humanly and physically to the human world today only through the Church, His human Body still on Earth, which spreads His love into the world in human and physical ways (feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, speaking the truth in love, comforting the afflicted, and so on). We Christians mysteriously extend the Incarnation of God on Earth in human flesh, as human beings indwelt by the Divine Holy Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7, Philippians 1:19) who spread His love in the world. Because the Body of Christ the Church is a mystery, closely tied to the central Christian Mystery of the Incarnation, we should not expect to fully comprehend it, but God does expect us to take seriously everything He has revealed about it in His Written Word the Bible when we form our ecclesiology, our understanding of the Church (ecclesiology is the theological study of the Church, which is in Greek the Ekklesia).
Unfortunately many Christians (especially Protestant Christians) effectively regard the “Body of Christ” as merely a metaphor for the Christian community of believers, but when the Apostle Paul (frequently) refers to the Church as “the Bride of Christ” and “the Body of Christ” this is not metaphor but mystery. Paul in fact is very clear that his identification of the Church with Christ Himself as His Bride and therefore (through one-flesh marital union) as His Body is a mysterious reality –
“this is a profound mystery – but I am speaking of Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32, see 22-32).
This Mystery justifies Paul calling the Church “the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The Christian Church being actually the Body of Christ Jesus is a real thing although it is a Mystery. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20) – Paul claims the crucifixion of Jesus as his own crucifixion. Jesus likewise identifies Himself so closely with those who are incorporated into Him through faith and baptism (Mark 16:16, Romans 6:3-11) so as to become “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) that when He reveals Himself in a vision to Saul, the great persecutor of the Christian Church (who afterwards becomes the Apostle Paul), He says,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4-5, Acts 22:7-8, Acts 26:14-15).
Saul had been persecuting baptized Christians, but Jesus said that Saul had been persecuting Him. Under the Old preparatory Covenant of the Jews, God would have said, “why do you persecute My People?,” but under the New, Universal Covenant Jesus the God-Man says “why do you persecute Me?” No wonder the converted Apostle Paul’s favorite term for the Church came to be the Body of Christ Himself.
How do the Christians who collectively make up the Church mysteriously become the very Body of Christ? The Body of Christ the Church is made up of those who are saved by Jesus, and Jesus says “those who believe and are baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). So both faith in Jesus and obedience to Him by undergoing the ceremony of baptism, which symbolizes, confirms and establishes the genuineness of the faith, and makes it formally a faith commitment, are involved.
What is the nature of this faith commitment of baptism? It is such an intimate loving union with Christ Jesus that the Bible (in Ephesians 5:22-32) links “the washing with water,” (the physical sign of baptism) with marital images of the Church as the Bride of Christ, as His wife, and in the same passage links the Bride of Christ with the Body of Christ by citing the Old Testament mystery of marriage that a man and his wife become one flesh, one body, specifying that husbands (like Christ) love their wives (like His Bride the Church) “as their own bodies … just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body.” While the greater context of the passage gives guidelines for Christians “submit[ting] to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21), and intends to impart some advice along these lines for actual husbands and wives, as well as parents and children and other relationships among Christians (5:33-6:9), Paul makes clear that his central point in his Ephesians 5:22-32 digression from the greater context1 is in revealing the Mystery that the Church is mysteriously both the Bride and the Body of Jesus Christ – “ ‘the two [man and wife] will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Christ and His “Bride” the Church are “one flesh,” one body, in this Mystery revealed in the Bible. Paul also makes clear that individual Christians are members of this Body of Christ the Church (5:30) – so “the washing with water” (5:26) of baptism, in which the formal lifetime faith commitment to Jesus Christ is made, should be seen as the “spiritual wedding ceremony” in which individuals commit themselves to love Christ forever and are thus made into members of the Bride of Christ the Church in a “spiritual marriage” and therefore they are made into members of the Body of Christ the Church in the marital mystery of the “one-flesh” loving union of a man and his wife.
This is why Jesus says “those who believe and are baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul speaks of “the obedience of faith,” (Romans 1:5, 16:26), and the first act of obedience required by faith is baptism. Baptism in obedient response to faith should be considered the “spiritual wedding ceremony” by which fallen humans who have come to believe in Jesus become the “Bride of Christ” and therefore, by the “one-flesh” marital union, the Body of Christ, transformed into “sons in the Son,” adopted by God the Father since we are joined bodily to His only natural Son, and therefore saved. Saved from being outside of God’s Family because of sin (Adam’s and our own, which is dealt with by Jesus the New Adam who we are bound to as His Body through our obedient loving faith in undergoing the “spiritual wedding” of baptism)! Those Protestant Christians who regard Baptism as “merely a ceremony,” faith being the only vital thing (so the ceremony can be dispensed with), are using the same false logic as those secular people who say a wedding is “merely a ceremony” and love is the only vital thing (so the marriage ceremony can be dispensed with). Feelings of love and a mental state of assent to truth are transitory – both are easily lost without a formalized commitment, which is why the Billy Graham Crusades learned to call the people who “give their hearts to Jesus” at their “altar calls” inquirers and not converts. The ceremony is vital for the confirmation and entrenchment of the faith or love, the ceremony is the act of commitment without which you are not committed. If you haven’t had the wedding ceremony, you aren’t married – and if you haven’t had the ceremony of baptism, you aren’t saved. It is very telling that the Early Church regarded those rare “exceptions” to formal baptism, the cases where the new believer died in an accident or was martyred for his new association with Christ before he had a formal baptism ceremony, as irregular baptisms, a “baptism of desire” in the case of accident or a “baptism in blood” in the case of martyrdom for Christ (which was not uncommon in the violently persecuted Early Church). The “obedience of faith” in baptism was not something that could be dispensed with for salvation – it could only be substituted in extreme cases, where one fully intended to be baptized in obedient faith in Jesus, where one longed for that formal spiritual “marriage” union with Jesus like an engaged couple longs for the permanent solidification of their love at the wedding, and only untimely death prevented the formal “spiritual wedding ceremony” of baptism. That wedding ceremony through which believers in Jesus become members of the Bride of Christ the Church, and therefore, through this “one flesh” martial union with Christ, become members of the very Body of Christ, the Church, and as such, members of Christ Jesus Himself, God’s Only Natural Son, become adopted children of God the Father, as a child’s spouse always becomes also the father’s child in marriage (The Father does not “lose a son” in the “spiritual marriage” of baptism but “gains a daughter,” His Family grows).2
So we can see that Christian Salvation is not as simple as some Christians reduce it to when they explain it; it is in fact a very beautiful mystery beyond full comprehension, when all the Bible reveals about it is considered. The Bible reveals that in the Mystery of Salvation Christians corporately (the Church) and individually are called the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, and the children of God – and all these wonderful terms for those saved by Christ so that we can live eternally with the Holy Trinity are related in the one beautiful and multi-layered mystery of God’s Salvation. It all starts with Love. God the Holy Trinity is Love, and God loves us first. The Holy Spirit which is the Love Proceeding from the Father overshadowed Mary so that God the Eternal Son might become Incarnate, human, so that we human beings could better relate in love to God. Our personal salvation depends on our loving response to God’s love which is Incarnate in Jesus – not just a passing feeling of love and faith, but a love commitment. We commit ourselves in love to God in Baptism which is a “spiritual wedding” which inaugurates a “spiritual marriage” with God the Eternal Son Incarnate, Jesus Christ. This makes us the Bride of Christ, sharing His Divine Life of Love which is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and eternally generates the Son, and who indwells us who are incorporated into Christ, “one flesh” with Jesus in the mystery of our committed spiritual marriage with Him, which makes us also the Body of Christ in the “one-flesh” marital mystery. Because we are the Bride and Body of Christ the Natural Son of God we are God the Father’s “daughters-in-law” or “sons in the Son,” we are joined to God the Father’s Family by our spiritual marriage with His Son and we are therefore adopted by God the Father as His own children, we are children of God. Because we are God’s children through our committed spiritual marriage with Christ in Baptism, we are no longer simply God’s creation whom He might be tempted to destroy for our waywardness and disobedience, for our sins against the Love which is His very character. Because we are His children He has committed to raising us to spiritual maturity in love so that we can dwell in His Family Home forever, and therefore we are saved from the Eternal consequences of sins against the Love that God is. As God’s children we are saved from being outside of God’s Family and therefore saved from living eternally outside of God’s Eternal Family Home (Heaven).
[Note: I have begun a more lengthy theological unpacking of the Mystery of the Body of Christ, tying it in with the whole mystery of salvation, which could possibly be added here.]
We who are saved by Christ Jesus are His Bride, His Body, and adopted children of His Father – all of these are part of our magnificent identity in Christ as members of the Church. But the most central and most profound of these is our identity as the Body of Christ. Our being the Bride through the Spiritual Wedding of Baptism is how we become the Body of Christ. Our becoming children of Jesus’ Father and part of His Family so that we are saved from being eternally outside of God’s Family is the result of our being the Body of Christ. While this result is wonderful for us, and part of God’s plan for us, our greatest dignity is in fact being the Body of Christ, united with Him and loving the world He made as His Body while we are here. So while we certainly appreciate being saved by Christ so we can live eternally with Him, our very union with Christ makes our personal eternal salvation not our first priority. As a member of His Body the Church our first priority becomes to love with self-giving love as He loves, learning how to let that self-giving love which defines the Trinitarian God who is love3 flow from Him through us to others. It is important to understand ourselves as members of the Body of Christ Himself, the instrument, the very human flesh, by which He reaches out in love to the world, so that we can best fulfill our purpose on this Earth, for God’s Glory and for the salvation of the world He loves.
Colossians 1:24 – the True Body of Christ the Church Even “Completes What Is Lacking in the Afflictions of Christ”
Understanding this mysterious reality of the Church as the Body of Christ is the only way to make sense of difficult passages of the Bible like Colossians 1:24, where the Apostle Paul says
“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
It is telling that in the greater context in verses 26 and 27 Paul twice refers to mystery, which the whole passage is charged with. In the Mystery of the Body of Christ, which is Paul’s favorite way of speaking of the Church, the suffering (unjust imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck etc.) which Paul personally endures with love for God and others, participates in the suffering of Jesus Himself on the Cross for love of God and others – because in the “one-flesh” mystery of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31-32), Paul is a member of Christ’s very Body, Paul is a part of Christ who suffers for the salvation of all.
So in Colossians 1:24 it is not that Christ’s afflictions on the Cross lacked effectiveness such that they need to be “completed” by Paul’s afflictions, but that they are not finished, since as we Christians (including Paul), who extend Christ’s Body on Earth in time, “take up our cross and follow Him” (Matthew 10:38) by enduring suffering with love, Christ continues to suffer for others through our suffering, just as Jesus continues to love others through the love we (empowered by Him) show to others. What Christians do (for love) to others is Jesus doing it to them, and what others do to Christians (like Saul persecuting them) is being done to Jesus (“why do you persecute me?”). This is why Paul refers to the mystery he really began speaking about in Colossians 1:24 specifically as “the Mystery of Christ in you” in verse 27. In this Mystery of the Body of Christ Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). As members of His Bride and thus His Body the Church, mysteriously we are part of Christ Jesus and Jesus is in us so as to love through us and even still to suffer through us for the benefit of others. Christians who have at least an implicit sense of this mysterious Biblical reality, when suffering comes upon them, often speak of “offering it up to God as a sacrifice.” Mysteriously it is the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ they are offering up, as part of His Body, “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, the Church.” They at least implicitly recognize that they are “taking up their Cross” so as to participate in the sufferings of Christ, whose Body they mysteriously are, and so they are empowered by Christ to patiently endure the afflictions, knowing, as Jesus did, that the suffering they endure for love of God has redemptive value for others because it participates in the sufferings of Jesus’ Cross. Being “in Christ” as a member of His Body charges even the bad things that happen to us with meaning and purpose! Note that the pagan Roman Empire was converted to Christian faith largely due to the witness of the many early Christian martyrs who, enabled and empowered with love by their participation in the Mystery of Christ’s Body, the Church, were lovingly obedient unto death as Christ the Head was.
We are God’s “Co-Workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9) as the Body of His Son
Our participation with Jesus Christ as His Body makes us co-workers with Christ (1 Corinthians 3:9) in His work, which is the redemption of humanity, and it is thus that, within the Body of Christ, we are even instructed to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) through our obedience, through our co-operation with “God who works in [us]” (Philippians 2:13). Paul similarly told Timothy to
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
In a mysterious way we participate in our own salvation by freely co-operating with and not sinfully opposing God’s work in us, though our efforts are only effective towards our salvation because they are united to Christ our God whose Body we are. We are only free to choose to co-operate with God’s Holy Spirit in us because of God’s Grace which first drew us to Him and which we received in abundance through our “belief and baptism” (Mark 16:16), but we still remain free to choose not to co-operate with God’s Holy Spirit, free to resist God and sin, which is why are required to co-operate with “God who works in [us]” so as to “work out [our] salvation.” God does not force Himself upon us. God does not save us without us, we are His co-workers in this endeavor.
In this sense wherein we participate in our own salvation, and by our suffering for love and praying for others and “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24), we are co-redeemers with Christ, personally participating with Him in the redemption of humanity though also completely dependent upon Him (we are not equal participants with Christ!). We take part in the subjective release of the graces of the objective redemption of Calvary, which makes us co-redeemers and mediators of grace, not of ourselves, but only with Christ the Redeemer and the one (primary) Mediator, as His Body.
Christ our God is “the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10), because Christ objectively won the saving grace sufficient for all humanity to be saved in His death and resurrection, but not every human person, not every human subject, personally and subjectively receives this saving grace Christ has made available to them (through the means of belief and baptism – Mark 16:16). Christ the Head of the Body has objectively attained salvation for all men, becoming objectively “the Savior of all men” as the Bible says, but not all men actually and subjectively receive this saving grace, which must be personally received through belief (and baptism in obedient faith in Him we believe). This is where we the Church as Christ’s Body comes in. Through our prayers for their salvation, through our witness of the truth which slowly moves their mind to accept the truth and believe, and especially through our love (from Christ our Head) which draws them to long to be baptized into Christ’s Body and become a member of the loving Family of God, we the Body of Christ participate with Christ our Head in the subjective release of saving grace into the lives of others, God’s co-workers in His work of the redemption of humanity. Others come to personally and subjectively participate in the New Life of Grace objectively won for all by Christ the Head through us the Body of Christ united to Christ the Head.
This is why Paul can call Christians he led to Christ his children (1 Corinthians 4:14, 2 Corinthians 6:13, Galatians 4:19; or his “son” – 1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Timothy 1:2,18, 2 Timothy 2:1, Philemon 10) and he their father (“in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” – 1 Corinthians 4:15). Although the Christians he is writing to were saved by Christ, not by Paul, Paul as a member of Christ’s Body participated in their salvation, through his preaching and his love (from Christ) shown to them he mediated the saving grace of Christ to these Christians so as to co-redeem them with Christ. Paul is the instrument, the member of the Body of Christ used by Christ through His indwelling Holy Spirit to minister saving grace to them, but Paul’s personal individual being is not obliterated by being a member of Christ, it is fulfilled as God intended when He created Paul, so that Paul is still Paul, freely cooperating with Christ as His co-worker (1 Corinthians 3:9), and by this personal free participation Paul can call the Christians who became also members of the Body through his ministry “his children” whom he gave “spiritual life” to by giving them the Gospel.
The inseparable union of Christ the Head and His Body the Church which lives His life in the Divine Holy Spirit is so profound that Paul in the Bible even uses the language of Christians personally “saving” themselves and others through their personal Christian life and witness, as in the following two passages:
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
“If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy … How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? ” (1 Corinthians 7:12-14,16)
In the Bible 1 Timothy 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 7:16 both use the language of Christians personally “saving” themselves and others (their hearers or their spouses) through their personal Christian witness – so it cannot possibly be wrong for Christians to use even the extreme language of individual Christians “saving” people, since the Bible itself uses such language. There is no scandal or confusion for the Bible to use such language as long as we recognize that the individual Christians who have the potential to “save” others only have this potential because they are members of the Body of Christ, united to Christ Jesus as a Body to its Head, and since the head and body of any living being are inseparable, it is permissible to speak of a member of the Body doing what the Head does, as long as one recognizes that the member of the Body only accomplishes this through its profound connection with the Head, drawing its life and power only from its sharing in the life of the Head. The Head sends directions and the Body follows, they cooperate together living their one life.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” – in this mystery of being members of Christ’s Body we have a restored freedom to cooperate with God, no longer slaves to sin. This means we still have the individual freedom to not cooperate with God’s will and thus sin, but likewise we have the freedom to choose to cooperate with God and be His Body reaching out to the world with His Love. When we freely choose rightly and not wrongly, when we choose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit of Jesus (the “soul” of the Body of Christ) who indwells us and not resist Him, we are not robots running a spiritual program, uninvolved in our own actions, but we are co-workers with the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ in us, the Spirit which makes us Christ’s Body and thus God’s children.
Colossians 1:24 Is Necessary to a Truly Biblical Theology of the Church
For any Christian Bible reader who does not accept the mystical Body of Christ (seeing the Bible’s frequent references to it as mere metaphor rather than the mystery Paul identifies it as in Ephesians 5:32), Colossians 1:24 in particular is a confusion, a contradiction, and even an offense: “how can Paul say there is anything lacking in the sufferings of Christ? How dare he say he can complete Christ’s afflictions?” But this is the Revealed Word of God, the Sacred Scripture which Christians must adapt themselves to and they dare not ignore. Any ecclesiology (study of the Church) which does not take into good account everything Paul says about the Body of Christ is a necessarily deficient and only pseudo-biblical understanding of the Church.
Blaise Pascal said that God wanted to give His human creatures the dignity of being causes, and this is why we pray. God, who does not strictly need us in order to accomplish anything, has chosen to limit His actions in the world and in human souls according to our cooperation with His desires through our prayers offered in love for the world of human souls so that we might become His co-workers in love. How many mothers and saintly old grandmothers have ardently prayed daily for many years for the conversion of their wayward adult children and grandchildren, and who dares to doubt, when the prodigals finally convert and are transformed by saving grace, that these prayers offered in such love were involved? Moreover, if we are not God’s co-workers and mediators of His Grace as Christ’s very Body, then all of our prayers are a farce. In James 5:16 “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (KJV), “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (NIV) because our prayers move God to action, God desires to save the world not on His own but through us as His Body, living His life with us and in us. As established above (in Volume II Chapter 1), Christ being the “one mediator,” in the original Greek word’s sense of “primary one” (not “exclusive one”), does not contradict but in fact implies a shared mediation and thus we are all channels or mediators of Grace, because we are members of His Body. This is important to realize: whatever we do in love as Christians is Christ doing it, because we are His Body. After the ascension of Christ’s glorified physical body and since the descent of the Holy Spirit which made us Christ’s Body the Church, in our human flesh we in a mysterious way extend the Incarnation of God in human flesh reaching out in love to the world (cf. Colossians 1:24).
“St. Teresa of Avila spoke of the awesome dignity that Christ has given us as His coworkers:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Your are eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.” (Hahn, Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace, 34)
Saint Augustine Said that Christ the Head and His Body the Church Together Make up “The Whole Christ,” and that Mary Is Mother of Both
Reflecting on Paul’s Biblical writing about the “Body of Christ” made up of many members and about “Christ the Head” of this Body, Saint Augustine also saw the mysterious and supremely profound extension of the Incarnation in our human flesh and came to speak of the “whole Christ” being made up of Head and Members, Head and Body. As in a human being, Augustine saw that the Body and the Head are inseparable. He thus noted that because of this Mary, the Mother of Christ the Head, is also the Mother of the Body – Mary is mother of the whole Christ, head and members. In this vein it is significant that Mary is present at the birth of both Christ the Head and His Body the Church – Acts 1:14 reveals that Mary was present with the Apostles, praying and waiting for the Holy Spirit to come and give birth to the Body of Christ the Church at Pentecost as He had previously overshadowed Mary in order to give birth to Christ the Head. This teaching of Mary as Mother of the “entire Christ,” Head and Body, from the greatest theologian of the Early Western Church simply reflects Jesus’ own words from Cross: Jesus told the Beloved Disciple, representative of all the beloved disciples of Jesus who make up His Body the Church, that Mary was now his mother (John 19:27). And after all, how can we take Jesus as our brother, never mind how can we mysteriously be His very Body, if we do not take His mother as our mother? We have have most certainly been adopted into His Family, so His mother is our mother, as all of the Undivided Early Church’s many Rites or ‘Sister Churches’ of East and West unanimously believed.
It Is Because the Church Is the Body of Christ Himself That the Bible Calls the Church “The Pillar and Foundation of the Truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and Only Therefore Can the Fundamentals of Christianity Declared by the Church at the Early Ecumenical Councils Be Trusted
As a final consideration of the Church as the Body of Christ: An important part of the participation of the Church, the Bride and Body of Christ, in the Mystery of Christ her Lord (Ephesians 5:32), is as follows: In the Bible, the Holy Spirit and the Church speak as one: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’ ” (Revelation 22:17). The conclusions of the Jerusalem Council, the first Council of the Christian Church leaders, are declared to the whole Church in the words “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …” (Acts 15:28). In the first Council of the Church recorded in Acts 15, and in the book of Revelation describing the end of time, and in every Ecumenical Council since that first Council, The Holy Spirit and the Bride of Christ, the Church, speak together. The Bride, the Church, who is “one flesh” with her human yet Divine Lord (therefore His Body), speaks with the accent of God! And this is why her judgments in the Ecumenical Councils of the worldwide ordained Church leaders to whom Jesus promised a special gift of the Holy Spirit who would “lead them into all the truth” (John 16:13) are true and accurate and can be trusted by Christians today.
Protestant Christians today often question, doubt or reject the fundamentals of traditional, orthodox Christian faith (and morality) precisely because they are Protestants who (because they believe in “the Bible Alone”) do not believe in the legitimate authority of the Early Church Councils of Eastern and Western ordained overseers (bishops or eparchs, patriarchs, and popes as chief overseers) which in history precisely hammered out or developed the clear articulations of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as we know them today, declaring them to be the only proper fundamental Christian interpretation of the Bible, against many early heretical Christian interpretations of the Bible. Thus, whether they personally reject the fundamentals or not, just because they are Protestants “liberal” Protestant Christians are often open to the possibility of unorthodox/heretical fundamental Bible interpretations – since it was only the authority of the Magisterial (Teaching) office of the ordained overseers (including the chief overseer the pope), which Protestants reject, citing a Sacred interpretive Tradition which Protestants also reject, that in history declared certain early interpretations of the Bible to be heretical and others to be orthodox “right teaching.”
But when one understands the mystical Body of Christ, it is easy to see that it is precisely as the Body of Christ Himself that the Church (with its Sacred Tradition and its Ecumenical Councils of ordained overseers – bishops\eparchs, patriarchs and popes) “is the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), and therefore its judgements in such matters of “all the truth” (John 16:13) are authoritative and trustworthy. It is only on this basis that Christians can be confident that the fundamentals of traditional, orthodox Christianity – which use interpretive terms not found in the Bible itself like Trinity, Incarnation, “Jesus is one in being with the Father” and “Jesus is fully God and fully man” – are correct, and that Biblical interpretations which deny these terms are incorrect. Fortunately, the Bible itself testifies to this authority of the Living Body of Christ the Church which was exercised in history at the Ecumenical Councils – see my book Sola Scriptura? What Scripture Alone Testifies Concerning the Church as the Body of Christ Expressing Himself in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium: The Biblical Basis for the Early Church’s Formal Repudiation of Heretics, Which Is the Biblical Basis for Refuting Modern Doctrinally Liberal Christianity Which Likewise Rejects or Doubts Traditional Christian Faith and Morality. Some of the actual historical (and extremely Catholic) process of the Undivided Early Church’s permanent establishment of basic orthodox Christianity against many early Christian heresies (in the Ecumenical Councils of the Body of Christ the Church) is described in So That The World May Believe Volume II Chapter 6, and in Volume III Chapter 5. (The historical and very Catholic process of the Canonization of the New Testament is described in Volume II Appendix II).
[Chapter 2 previously ended above. The following ending to Chapter 2 is an unfinished first rough draft of a brand new section I am thinking about adding. Protestant readers please remember that the heart of So That The World May Believe is to help reunify the Christian Church according to its Undivided First Millennium ideal of Christian unity in diversity among many different yet united ‘Sister Churches’ sharing orthodox Christian faith, “so that the world may believe” in Jesus when it sees Jesus’ love in the world through our love as one Christian Family because of Jesus. So when I point out how very Catholic the Undivided Early Church was, I am NOT trying to say “all Protestants should therefore return to the specifically Roman Catholic Church they left” – a proposition which I am sure most Protestant Christians will be inclined to resist simply out of the habit of centuries of separation from the Catholic Church. Rather, I wish to point out the facts:
1.) that the Catholic Church was and is much more than merely the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church which Protestants left centuries ago over many misunderstandings and several abuses of the time both real and perceived. The Catholic Church was and is the Catholic (Universal) Communion of orthodox Christian ‘Sister Churches,’ Eastern and Western, visibly united in Christ under the pope’s head pastorship and united in common orthodox Christian faith which the (currently 26) different Rites or ‘Sister Churches’ express in many different ways which are mutually enriching.
2.) that the Undivided Early Church, which called itself the Catholic Church because it had this Universal (Catholic) nature and structure, was the same Early Christian Church Communion which clarified and firmly established the traditional fundamentals of orthodox Christian faith and morality in the early centuries of Christianity, against many threats to this faith from many early Christian heretics.
Therefore, it is only right that Protestant churches should abandon their typical prejudice against the word “Catholic” whose full range of meaning is far beyond the one Roman Rite of the Catholic Church they left long ago at a difficult time in its history. Therefore, it is only right that Protestant churches should want to associate themselves with the Undivided Early Catholic Church Communion whose traditional, fundamental, orthodox Christian faith they share and which thus makes fundamentally orthodox Protestants “Catholic at Heart” already (as opposed to the “doctrinally liberal” Protestants who are truly “Protestant at heart,” protesting against the traditional Bible Canon and traditional, fundamental Bible interpretations of the united First Millennium Catholic Church). Therefore, it is only right that orthodox Protestant Christians who are already“Catholic at Heart,” who already preserve about 90% of the First Millennium Catholic Christian faith, should investigate just what it is that today’s Catholic Church Communion of 26 orthodox Christian ‘Sister Churches’ of East and West has maintained and preserved from the Undivided Early Catholic Church Communion, which has protected all 26 of the Catholic Church’s united Rites or ‘Sister Churches’ from ever doubting or denying any of the essentials of orthodox Christian faith, while so many Protestant churches – precisely the oldest, “mainline” churches, those most mature in their Protestantism – have doubted, compromised, or even abandoned the most basic traditional tenets of historic Christian faith and morality. However, Protestant readers should also please remember that when I point out these facts which should make Protestant churches interested in the possibility of reestablishing the Christian unity Jesus prayed for by rejoining the larger Catholic Communion they took leave of when they left the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, I do not pretend that only the Protestant churches have much to gain from such reunification according to the model of the Undivided Early Catholic Church’s Universal (Catholic) Communion of orthodox Eastern and Western Christian Sister Churches. Their return would certainly enrich the Catholic Communion of today, which is still itself in the process since Vatican Council II of re-discovering and making more manifest its First Millennium Unity in Diversity which has been largely hidden in the Second Millennium because of the Muslim conquests of the Catholic East and the resulting numerical dominance of the Roman Rite. ]
Most of the Objections Protestant Christians Have to Catholic and Orthodox Belief and Practice Disappear as Soon as Protestants Really Grasp the Mystery Revealed in the Bible That the Church Really Is the Body of Christ Through Which Christ the Head Still Physically and Visibly Interacts with Humanity (Meaning the Church His Body Cannot Get “In Between” Christ and People as Protestants Fear but Is Christ Ministering to People Through His Body)
It is my experience, as a former Protestant and Evangelical Christian, that Protestant Christians do not really believe that the Church is the Body of Christ as the Bible reveals. They use the language of the Body of Christ because the Bible uses it, but they generally treat it effectively as a metaphor, as a mere figure of speech. In over two decades as a Protestant (and more than that as a Catholic who still enjoys worshiping with Protestants occasionally) I have heard a few Protestant sermons which touch on the mysterious aspect of the Body of Christ the Church, especially when Ephesians 5:22-32 is read, because this passage explicitly identifies the “profound mystery” of the Church as the Bride and Body of Jesus Christ. But typically the pastor stands in awe but then backs away quickly from the mystery without delving into it. This is unfortunate, since delving into it would lead Protestants into a much deeper sense of their own great dignity (and responsibility) as REALLY being members of Christ’s Body the Church, and it would make the Catholicism their forefathers ran away from make much more sense to them, towards the healing of the divisions in the true Body of Christ the Church – since it means that the Church cannot get “in between” Christ and humanity as Protestants fear, because the Church IS Christ’s Body still on Earth reaching out to humanity. Every orthodox Protestant/Evangelical has even experienced this Mystery, since essentially all of them came to their saving faith in Jesus not through “the Bible Alone” but through the instrumental ministry of other Christians, other members of the Body of Christ the Church THROUGH which Jesus Christ the Head Himself spoke to them, showed them His Divine Love, and drew them into His Father’s Family by their own baptismal “spiritual marriage” union with Him which allows them also to be such bodily instruments of Jesus Christ the Head Himself in the world.
As Jesus Christ the Head was a stumbling block to the minds of religious Jews of His day because of His obvious humanity, so the Church His Body is a stumbling block to the minds of religious Protestants since the original Protestant Reformers because of its obvious (and imperfect) humanity. The Jews could not accept that the mere human being Jesus Christ standing before them was also Divine, and Protestants cannot accept that the historical Church His Body, which called itself the Catholic Church since the turn of the 2nd Century, which is made up of (imperfect) human beings, is also Divine, a merely human and fallible Body that is also spiritually animated by the Divine Holy Spirit of Jesus its Head which fills it with the love of Christ to display physically in the world, and which, among other things, keeps the Body of Christ the Church from dogmatically teaching error according to Jesus’ promise to lead the Apostolic leaders of the Church (and their ordained successors in Church leadership) “into all the truth” (John 16:13). Protestants typically or effectively believe in the Body of Christ the Church only as a metaphor, but the Bible says it is a mystery (Ephesians 5:32). When this mystery of the Body of Christ the Church is accepted in faith because God revealed it in the Bible, Catholicism results, including absolute and permanently unshakeable certainty about those particular interpretations of the Bible Christians know as the traditional essential fundamental tenets of Christian faith, which are nothing other than the official Bible interpretations of the Body of Christ the Church acting through the Catholic Magisterium of the ordained overseers (bishops/eparchs, patriarchs and popes) at the Early Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Early Universal (Catholic) Church of East and West (citing the Body of Christ the Church’s life as previously lived and passed on at least implicitly in Catholic Sacred Tradition). Not accepting the Mystery of the Church as the Body’s participation in the Incarnation (human enfleshment) of Christ the Head Himself, not accepting that the Church is the divine instrument through which Christ the Head expresses Himself in human flesh still on Earth throughout history since His Ascension and still today, leads naturally and logically to the loss of certainty about the fundamentals of Christian faith which are the official Catholic Church interpretation of the traditional New Testament which the Catholic Church (as the Living Body of Christ) canonized as being divinely inspired in the first place (in a Catholic process between 367-405 AD – see Volume II Appendix II, and Volume II Chapter 6 ). The current undeniable fact of Protestant doctrinal liberalism with its uncertainty about orthodox fundamentals or its actual unorthodoxy in precisely the oldest and most mature Protestant “mainline” churches is ample demonstration of this reality that rejecting or not really understanding and accepting the mystery revealed in the Bible that the Church is really the Body of Christ Himself and thus is really “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) leads to liberalism, uncertainty, and even unorthodoxy or heretical denial of fundamental Christian truths (Protestant Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism are orthodox Christian reactions to Protestant liberalism, but these orthodox reactions are ultimately not Protestant at all but what I call “Catholic at heart” – orthodox Protestants cannot win arguments with liberal Protestants on the basis of Protestant “Bible Alone” doctrine, for on the basis of “the Bible Alone” orthodox Protestants cannot justify to liberal Protestants why the New Testament must be the traditional collection of ancient Christian writings which the ancient Catholic Church declared it was, and they cannot justify why the Bible must be interpreted so as to yield the traditional fundamentals of orthodox Christianity which the ancient Catholic Church declared to be the only proper and orthodox way to interpret the Bible – only accepting the Church in history – which called itself the Catholic Church – as truly the Body of Christ and “the pillar and foundation of the truth – as the Bible itself calls it – justifies absolute confidence in the traditional New Testament and traditional fundamentals of orthodox Christianity).
So the Mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the God-man (which is shared by His Body the also human yet Divine Church animated and guarded from error by the Divine Holy Spirit which indwells it despite the human imperfections of its members) is a stumbling block to the mind which can only be overcome through the Divine gift of faith. Jews and Protestants regularly stumble over this stumbling stone of the human yet Divine Jesus Christ with His human yet Divine Body still on Earth, the Church. The following Scriptures about the stumbling stone apply to both Christ the Head and to His Body the Church which, as Saint Augustine noted, is inseparable from Him:
© 2005, 2009 Peter William John Baptiste SFO
1Paul usually verbally dictated his letters while someone else wrote down his words, and it is not uncommon for Paul, writing this way, in the midst of one topic, to, inspired by the Holy Spirit, digress into a related but much deeper topic, and then return to the original topic.
2Infant baptism is like an “arranged marriage” with Jesus, arranged marriages being the norm for marriage in Biblical times. Though adult baptisms were of course more common when Christianity first began and adults were presented with a brand-new Gospel they had to accept as an adult (their children still being baptized within their parents’ whole “households,” as in Acts 16:15), infant baptism was the norm in the Early Church after Christianity was well established. As Jews had previously entered God’s Covenant Family while infants, through the ceremony of circumcision at 8 days old, but confirmed this commitment to Judaism they did not personally choose in their Bar Mitzvah ceremony which made them legally adult members of the Jewish faith family, so it was normal for Christians to be baptized into the New Covenant Family of God as infants and to later ceremonially confirm their infant baptism when they were old enough to choose to believe in Jesus Christ – having already lived their young lives in His Grace, having already “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.” Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Early Western Church, whose Confessions of Saint Augustine are considered a Christian classic by both Catholics and Protestants, deeply regretted not being baptized as an infant, since he would have had early access to tremendous grace which would have helped him to avoid the long sinful life he lived before becoming a Christian as an adult (which was the subject of his Confessions). Note that it is normal that one does not personally choose which family one is born into, so the person who is baptized as an infant grows up as part of God’s Family, having received the utterly free gift of God’s treasure of salvation through their infant baptism into God’s Family which they did not personally choose, just as those born into families with (lesser) worldly wealth did not choose their family with its earthly treasures. Note that both the child born into worldly wealth and the child “born again” into spiritual wealth through baptism must remain in and not renounce their family in order to receive their great inheritance! The infant-baptized must confirm their infant baptism and their place in God’s Family through personal belief when they are old enough, since it is those who BOTH “believe, AND are baptized” who “will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Salvation is not from mere transitory belief not committed to in baptism; and also not from mere ceremonial baptism without belief when one is old enough to believe. Like a regular marriage, the spiritual marriage requires an ongoing choice to remain committed since the Tempter will tempt us to violate or renounce our commitment to either kind of marriage. But salvation begins for infants when through infant baptism they are “born again” (John 3:3) “of [baptismal] water and the [indwelling Holy] spirit” (John 3:5), born again into God’s Family, having been adopted by God the Father through this spiritual “arranged marriage” with His Son.
3God really is love in its deepest essence. The Father gives of Himself totally, holding nothing back, and the Son is generated. The Son, as the perfect image of the Father, gives Himself totally in love back to the Father. The Holy Spirit is the Love Proceeding in both directions. Go To Trinity of Love: The Beating Heart Which Drives the Whole Story of the Bible and the Church