“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” Here is how the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 795) hammers out one of the two axes of the Roman Catholic theological system, i.e. the Christ-Church interconnection (the other being the nature-grace interdependence). If one wants to come to terms with the deep structure of the theological vision of Rome, they must begin by addressing this critical Christological-ecclesiological point whereby Rome considers itself the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In his masterful book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (2014), Gregg Allison has done a great service in highlighting the foundational importance of the nexus between Christ and the Church for the whole Roman Catholic framework. Every doctrine and every practice occurs between the two axes: on the one hand an optimism about nature (regardless of the covenant-breaking brought about by sin) and on the other inflating the claims of the church that acts as another Christ. Now, from within the Roman Catholic tradition, David Meconi, S.J. reinforces the crucial importance of the fact that “the Church and Christ really are one” (2) given the fact that the Church is “an extension of Jesus Christ himself” (2).
Meconi is academically well-qualified to write from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective. In the past I have read his The One Christ: Saint Augustine’s Theology of Deification (2013) and consulted The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2014) of which he is one of the chief editors. He is a Roman Catholic Augustinian scholar with a particular interest in a “whole Christ” theology. With the recent book Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2021) Meconi labours on the Christ-Church interconnection even more closely, thus offering an account of what it means for Roman Catholic theology to affirm that “the Church is a replication of the incarnate God’s own human and divine life” (6).
The Early Centuries
He does it by emphasizing the historical perspective, i.e. reading the five centuries of the Christian church as if they were “the first five hundred years of Jesus’ life on earth” (14). Since “the Church is the extension of Christ’s very incarnate self” (15), the Church is therefore Christ unfurled as the title of the book indicates. In the first chapter, the thesis is repeatedly stated: “The Church is the unbroken continuation of Christ’s own incarnate self, the extension of his divine and human presence on earth” (17) so that “post-Ascension people could see, hear, and still touch the Lord” (17). Moreover, “The Church as founded by Jesus Christ is the continuation of his own divinely human, or humanly divine, life” (19). The unfurling of Christ in the church stretches to His work of salvation, establishing an interconnection between the cross of Calvary and the chief sacrament of the Church; in fact, “in and through his Church, the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be with us in the Most Holy Eucharist” (19-20). Reiterating the point, Meconi goes as far as saying that “the hypostatic union of the incarnate Son’s humanity and divinity continues in the unity of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (114).
In subsequent chapters, Meconi attempts to prove that this Roman Catholic view has been upheld in the church since the beginning. As for Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) and in writings such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, he argues that the early Christians understood themselves “as envoys and extensions of Christ’s very presence in the world” (30). However, the proofs given for such a strong statement are less than convincing. In fact, the “canonicity of Scripture” (i.e. the recognition of the inspired books of the Bible) and the “rule of faith” (i.e. the comprehensive summary of the gospel) which the Apostolic Fathers were interested in are hardly early attestations of the Christ-Church interconnection. They are simply some of the concerns that the early church had in trying to faithfully live after the death of the apostles. Their tendency toward “monoepiscopacy” (i.e. one bishop over each local church) is more of an unfortunate influence of Roman imperial authority structures than a sign of their endorsing the “whole Christ” theology. As for later Fathers, Meconi is right in saying that, for example, Tertullian spoke of the church as the “mother Church” and Origen of the “bride of Christ” (69), but these two titles given to the church do not intrinsically imply the theology of the extension of the incarnation, unless one wants to see it retrospectively, having already decided that this is what he wants to see.
The Legacy of the Creeds
Examining the legacy of the early councils and creeds (Nicea and Constantinople) which focussed on the trinitarian nature of God and the divine and human natures of the person Jesus Christ, Meconi makes the point that “Jesus Christ founded a Church so he would have a visible locus, a freely-chosen Body, unto whom he could extend his life” (135). Again, this is an inference that stretches what the creeds say by filling in the terms with meanings they don’t have. The language of “extension” and “continuation” is not found in the creeds. The union or fellowship between Christ and the church (or the believers) is certainly maintained, but whether this relationship points to the “extension” of the incarnation is beyond what the texts of the councils say. In order to cross the boundaries between the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the life of the church, one needs further theological elaboration than what can be found there.
Finally, a long section of a chapter is dedicated to Augustine’s views of the “whole Christ,” Meconi’s own area of expertise. According to him, “for Augustine, the ‘whole Christ’ is not just Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father but the entire Christ is Jesus as well as those whom Jesus loves” (182). Together they form “one mystical person” (197). This is accurate as far as Augustine is concerned, although in Augustine there is also a strong emphasis on the distinction between Christ and the church and the submission of the latter to the former. On this point, Augustine is at best confused. I have written elsewhere of the damages of Augustine’s formula (totus Christus) and the corrections brought about by the Protestant Reformation in stressing the uniqueness of Christ (solus Christus).
The Whole Christ or Christ Alone?
On the axes of the Christ-church interconnection,Rome builds its self-understanding as a church endowed with the authority of Christ the King, the priesthood of Christ the Mediator, and the truth of Christ the Prophet. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church – in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word and its administration of the sacraments. But this is not what the gospel teaches. This is an inflated view of the church based on a defective view of Christ. According to Rome, there is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the church) and ecclesia in Christo (the church in Christ).
The emphasis on the Christ–church interconnection seems to forget that the Church is made up of creatures (human beings). Because the church is made up of creatures, it is part of creation, and is not the creator, while Christ is the divine Creator, the One from whom all things are and who is perfect now and always. When we talk about Christology, we are talking about the unique relationship between human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Creator; when we talk about ecclesiology, we are talking about the people of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit – all of these titles referring to a created reality. The distinction between Creator and creature is decisive for not falling into the trap of elevating the church into a quasi-divine body.
After the Ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not continue his incarnation in the church. Having formed the church through his finished work on the cross, He sent it to the ends of the earth and empowered it with the Holy Spirit to preach and to bear witness to his gospel of salvation. Christ is the head of the church, and the church serves His purposes and His alone, until He comes again.