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What picture is this? Christmas, Church, Creation and Confusion.

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it’, claimed Wittgenstein as he mused on how a certain way of looking at language took philosophy off in a wrong direction.

There is a picture of the church which is especially linked to this time of year which has led, and is in danger of leading, Christians astray.

Conflating Christ with the Church

As far back as 1889 with the publication of a series of essays by Anglo-Catholic theologians entitled, Lux Mundi, the notion of Christ’s self-giving in his self-humbling was taken and applied to the Church as ‘the body of Christ’. This led to the notion that the Church itself can be thought of as an extension of the incarnation. Sometimes it is expressed at the level of popular piety captured by the teaching of the Catholic mystic, Teresa Avila,

‘Christ has no body now but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world.

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’

At the level of basic theology, this is, of course, nonsense. Christ does have a body and it is in heaven as he reigns in and through that body at the right hand of the Father. This is an example of taking a biblical truth, in this case that we are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), and extending its significance in a direction which was never intended. It stretches the metaphor to breaking point and effectively destroys it.

Beguiling and bullying

In 1988, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, chided a gathering of Anglican Evangelicals at NEAC 3 for not having given much thought to the subject of ‘ecclesiology’, the doctrine of the church. He said, 'If it [the church] is the Body of Christ, the Church too demands our belief, trust and faith'. Such a statement betrays a view echoing the Pope's Mystici Corporis which is at variance with Scripture in that it goes beyond Scripture to the point of identifying and confusing the Church with Christ by a misappropriation of the analogy of 'the Body'. In fact, it borders on the blasphemous by urging a loyalty to the Church which should be reserved for Christ alone.

As John Webster writes, ‘Any extension of the incarnation…can be Christologically disastrous, in that it may threaten the uniqueness of the Word’s becoming flesh by making ‘incarnation’ a general principle or characteristic of divine action in, through, or under creaturely reality.’[1] Such talk of the Christians ‘incarnating’ God’s presence or ‘incarnating the Gospel’, which is becoming increasingly common even within evangelical circles, actually devalues the incarnation, robbing it of its uniqueness and significance.

Corrupting Christology and Creation

More recently in October 2020, the Bishop of Reading, Olivia Graham, posted a video on behalf of Oxford diocese in which she began to explore the theological basis for Christian care for the environment.[2] In the talk she put forward the suggestion that a reason Christians should care for the environment is that God is ‘incarnate,’ not only in the person of Jesus Christ, but in creation as a whole, and has been ever since the Big Bang. In order to stave off some strong criticism, the Bishop posted a clarification acknowledging that using the term ‘incarnation’ had not been helpful, but what she meant was that ‘the Divine pervades every part of the universe, while clearly being above, beyond and greater than the universe.’[3] This is not the idea of divine immensity as championed, for example by the Puritan Stephen Charnock, who writes, ‘God, because infinite, fills all, yet so as not to be contained by them. He is from the height of the heavens to the bottom of the deeps, in every point of the world, and in the whole circle of it, yet not limited by it, but beyond it.’ [4] Rather it is the half-baked panentheism as put forward by Bishop John Robinson in ‘Honest to God’ which to some degree identifies God with creation.

The principle is simple: use biblical pictures in biblical ways.

Questions for reflection

Why is it important to guard the doctrine of the incarnation: that God became a man without ceasing to be God?

What are the dangers of misapplying this truth?

Is it helpful to speak of Christians ‘incarnating the Gospel’? Are there other ways of expressing the underlying sentiment?

[1] John Webster, Holy Scripture. A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), pp. 22-23.

[4] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:368

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