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Volume 19, Issue 1: Liturgia

The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, , Part 2

Peter Leithart

Suppose the "body of Christ" is not the body of Christ? To put it more clearly, what if the historical, visible, empirical church is not really the people united as members to the Incarnate Son by the Spirit of the Father? What if it's no more than a pointer to the real body of Christ, which is invisible? What if the real body of Christ never appears as such in history? What then?

Then, to paraphrase Paul, our hope is vain. Then we are most to be pitied. Then is our faith useless, and our preaching false.
Strong claim, that. Can I justify it? Does the truth of the gospel depend on claiming that the historical, visible, empirical church is the people united as members to the Incarnate Son by the Spirit of the Father?
To make the case, we need to go back to the beginning, to the garden. God's purpose in Adam was to form a race on earth that would worship Him in truth, and subdue and rule the earth in faithful obedience to Him. God intended to lead Adam's race to maturity, from glory to glory. Sin is an obstacle to that purpose, but sin didn't change God's purpose. From the first gospel promise to Adam and Eve outside Eden, through Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus, the judges and kings, to the final climactic act of salvation in Jesus, God's purpose has been the same: He intended to form a race on earth that will worship Him in truth, and subdue and rule the earth in faithful obedience to Him.
The good news of the gospel is that God has, at long last, acted in His Son to achieve this purpose. Through the work of the Son and the gift of the Spirit, Israel's heart of stone (the tablets of Moses) has been replaced by a heart of flesh so that the new Israel "will be careful to observe My ordinances" (Ezek. 36:27). The new Israel, cleansed by the Son and renewed by the Spirit, turns the desolate land into a garden, ruins into fortified cities (Ezek. 36:33_36).
If there is no new Israel on earth, if the church is only "kinda" a new Israel, then the gospel is simply not true—because the gospel is precisely that there is a new Israel, a new people of God. And, the new Israel is precisely the people indwelt by the Spirit. If that description—an Israel indwelt by the Spirit—doesn't describe any actually existing, historical community of people, then the gospel is false.
Or, try it this way: Genesis chapter 1 says that we are created in the image of a God who speaks of Himself in the plural, a God who can not only say "I" but "we." We are created as social beings, entangled with the lives of others and with the things of the world in such profound ways that it's often difficult to know where one ends and another begins. A woman loses her husband of fifty years and feels that she's lost part of herself. A burglar empties a home, and the owners feel raped.
Because of the way human beings are made, sin damages our relations with each other and the world as much as it damages our relationship with God. Like Adam, we blame other people to assuage our guilt; like Cain, we butcher them because their deeds are righteous and ours are wicked. We employ our tools and goods to destroy rather than to build.
Given these realities, salvation for the human race must take a social form. Were God to save individuals from within the human race and restore them to individual fellowship with Himself, He would not be saving human beings as they were created. He would be saving "egos," but not creatures who say "we." If He delivered us from individual sins, without delivering us from the sinful ways we treat one another and the world, He would not be saving us from all sin. If God is going to restore the human race to right order, He must form a society of the saved. If there is no society of the saved in history, then there simply is no salvation in history. Salvation is still a distant, longed-for possibility.
Of course, salvation-in-social form, that is, the church as the body of Christ, is not yet perfected. There are false sons in her pale, and each member remains sinful and immature. Imperfect as it is, however, salvation-in-social form is a reality now, so that the "body of Christ" is truly the body of Christ.
In his classic Catholicism, Henri de Lubac makes the point forcefully: "To St. Paul the Church is the People of the New Covenant. Israel according to the Spirit takes the place of Israel according to the flesh: but it is not a collection of many individuals, it is still a nation albeit recruited from the ends of the earth; `the tribe of Christians,' says Eusebius, for instance, `the race of those who honor God.'" This Israel inherits the promises to Abraham, which were given to the "one seed" of Christ (Gal. 3:16). As de Lubac says, "Where Christ is, and there alone, can be found the true Israel, and it is only through incorporation in Christ that participation in the blessings of Abraham may be obtained."
If this is not true—if the church is not this new Israel according to the Spirit, if she is not directly and literally the seed of Abraham in the Seed of Abraham—then is our faith vain; then are we most to be pitied.

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