Christ, Bible, Church: Some thoughts on in/fallibility

As I noted on Friday, Derek recently wrote a post setting forth some provisional thoughts on the church and infallibility. While I generally agree with his conclusions, I did raise, in a comment over there, some questions about using the hypostatic union as an analogy or model for thinking about the relation between the human and divine aspects of the church. So I thought it might be worth trying–in a tentative way–to flesh that worry out a bit more here.

The hypostatic union, of course, refers to the Christian confession that the human and divine natures subsist in one person in Jesus Christ. By analogy, then, we might say (and Derek says he considers it an open question to what extent we can say this) that there is something similar going on with the Bible, the Church, and the Eucharist:

Now—the Incarnation is about the conjunction of these natures: the Word taking flesh. Theologically there are three other loci where I believe that something similar is happening. That is, in the Holy Scriptures, the Word becomes joined to human language and words as a means of God’s self-revelation. Similarly in the Holy Eucharist, Christ becomes joined to the physical elements of bread and wine as a means of God’s self-revelation and a means of grace. Finally, in the Holy Church, Christ incorporates us into his mystical body which becomes a single organism, a living church built of living stones to use the imagery of Paul, Peter, and John.

I’m going to leave aside the Eucharist and focus on the Church, and to some extent the Bible. As I see it, there are significant risks in using such a model to describe the Bible and/or Church. (I’m bracketing the question of to what extent this analogy has in fact been used in the history of Christian thought since I’m not well-versed enough in that history to comment.)

My main concern is that such a move may threaten to collapse the distinction between Christ and the Bible/Church. This is because, what we confess in the doctrine of the Incarnation is that Christ was wholly transparent to the divine will. By this I just mean that nothing in him hindered the expression of God’s character or saving will. To put it another way, Jesus is the divine life lived out under the conditions of human, creaturely existence. But–the same can’t be said–or so I would maintain–of either the Bible or the Church.

Take the Bible first. There are certainly parts of the Bible that seem to obscure the character of God as revealed in Jesus. Just to take an example at hand, in today’s lectionary reading from 2 Samuel, we are told that God, to punish David for his transgression of committing adultery with Uriah the Hittite’s wife and arranging for Uriah to be killed, “struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill” (2 Sam. 11:15). Now, whatever we may want to say about the Bible as a medium of revelation–and I do want to affirm it–a God who strikes down innocent children because of their parents’ sins seems hard to square with the God revealed by Jesus. It’s the revelation of God in Jesus that provides our norm for interpreting–and if necessary critiquing–the portrayals of God in the Bible.

The same can be said of the Church. We might define the Church as the fellowship of those people who are united to Christ by faith and Baptism and who consciously seek to subject themselves to Christ’s lordship. The Church attempts, in principle, to follow Christ–but clearly does not always succeed. It is a mixture of elements–some that reflect and some that obscure the divine goodness.

Granted the New Testament refers to the Church as the Body of Christ, and that this language has been very important in Christian reflection on the nature of the church. But I would argue that “body” language can be misleading if we take it to imply that the Church is a wholly adequate expression of the divine will. The Church is a creature, and maintaining the creator/creature distinction is essential for avoiding the temptation to mistake the finite for the infinite, which is at the root of claims to infallibility. Or, as H. Richard Niebuhr wrote, to risk falling from a “radical” monotheism into a churchly henotheism:

In church-centered faith the community of those who hold common beliefs, practice common rites, and submit to a common rule becomes the immediate object of trust and the cause of loyalty. The church is so relied upon as source of truth that what the church teaches is believed and to be believed because it is the church’s teaching; it is trusted as the judge of right and wrong and as the guarantor of salvation from meaninglessness and death. To have faith in God and to believe the church become one and the same thing. To be turned toward God and to be converted to the church become almost identical; the way to God is through the church. So the subtle change occurs from radical monotheism to henotheism. The community that pointed to the faithfulness of the One now points to itself as his representative, but God and church have become so identified that often the word “God” seems to mean the collective representation of the church. God is almost defined as the one who is encountered in the church or the one in whom the church believes. (H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, p. 58)

Radical monotheism, in Neibuhr’s thinking, relativizes the claim of even the most sacred of authorities. Maybe a useful way of characterizing the Church would be along the lines of Luther’s simul justus et peccator (at the same time just and sinful). The Church lives from its faith in the crucified and risen one and is just through his righteousness alone. At the same time, the Church remains empirically a mixed bag of good and evil, of truth and error, ever in need of reformation.

8 thoughts on “Christ, Bible, Church: Some thoughts on in/fallibility

  1. As a quick note–more later, perhaps–I think I construe the revelation possible in the Scriptures more broadly than some. Some will restrict revelation only to an acceptance of the literal words on the page. I don’t agree with this. Rather I understand the process of reading to be one where the text provides a vehicle for the encounter between the Holy Spirit and the reader. In this encounter I believe that even one of the “clobber verses” can be a legitimate means of revelation if, in the struggle with the text the reader—by means of the Spirit-0–comes to the realization that the literal meaning of the text does not cohere with the character of God revealed elsewhere in Scripture.

    In this case, God’s self-disclosure has occurred, and occurred in a way that would not have happened without the encounter with that particular text.

    Does that help?

  2. A completely off the top of my head comment: I think that Nestorius’s prosopic union would be a better analogy than the hypostatic union. It seems like the union between Christ and his Church does need to be continually actualized moment by moment in a way that perhaps the union of divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ does not. Which may account for why the Church is alternately such a mess and indispensable.

    Of course I’m a Presbyterian, which is just another way of saying that I’m a crypto-Nestorian, so caveat emptor.

  3. I’d agree with you.

    I doubt the Catholic hierarchy sees the church/mystical body of Christ (in the sense of all the faithful) as infallible but only the the hierarchy …. hence the disconnect between the church abd those in the pwes on subjects like birth control.

  4. So is it only the fact of sin that you think impedes the force of the analogy? Because that would still leave a quite considerable amount of force for the analogy as a limit, with Scripture and the Church not perfectly parallelling but still approximating the union in ways limited by their material.

  5. @Derek: Yes, I do find that way of looking at such passages helpful. I’m not sure that it moves us closer to a “hypostatic union” model of looking at the Bible, though. Doesn’t it seem as if such a disclosure could occur through a variety of mediums (nature, other texts, people, etc.)? If so, why apply the model to the Bible specifically.

    @Brandon: Not sure. But if we’re going to introduce difference of degree in this, I wondering whether an incarnational analogy is less misleading than other possible ones. For instance, one that makes reference to the Spirit.

    In general, it now occurs to me to ask whether the incarnational analogy is being asked to do too much work, leaving the Spirit with relatively little to do. After all, don’t we usually speak of the “inspiration” of scripture? And isn’t it the Spirit that is supposed to guide us into “all truth”? I realize, of course, that one shouldn’t draw sharp distinctions between the Persons of the Trinity, but maybe talk of inspiration leaves more space open for the frailty of the human material She has to work with?

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